Thursday, August 14, 2014

FALEOMAVAEGA SKIPS VISIT OF KEY HOUSE COMMITTEE TO AMERICAN SAMOA; Absence raises new questions

Oh, to have been walking on Monday down the corridor of the congressional building that houses Faleomavaega’s offices. Visitors might have been surprised to have heard the sound of champagne corks popping and hands slapping in “high-fives” as the delegate’s chief enforcer, Lisa Williams, and her communications staff surely must have been celebrating the quiet Sunday arrival in Pago Pago then less than 90 minutes later the departure of a high ranking delegation of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The group flew in and out without ever having seen the place or having had to entertain the question “Where’s Eni?”  So, the island went back to enjoying a typically quiet Sunday afternoon of church and family activities.

To add to what must have been the sheer delight of Faleomavaega’s staff, the media did not even make any mention of his absence in their coverage, despite the irony that he is the senior Democrat on the visiting House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs (FWOIA) and the second most senior Democrat on the Full Committee, whose chairman headed the delegation. 

Did you read that, folks?  To repeat it with emphasis, the House subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs.  Sink in yet?

The media chose, instead, merely to shrug it off as a short refueling stop for yet another transiting “CODEL” while noting that the press was barred for “security reasons,” although Samoa News did acknowledge in passing that the exclusion was unprecedented.  If his staff’s mission were not to let this delegation’s visit serve as a platform for raising more questions about Faleomavaega’s extended, nine-plus month absence from the territory, they succeeded.  Totally.

Without fear of any contradiction, it is not an overstatement to say that the Natural Resources Committee, and particularly the FWOIA subcommittee, whose chairman and Ranking Member also were on the trip, is the single most important committee to American Samoa in either the House or the Senate.  The local media did a grave disservice to its readers and listeners not to point that out.  For the sake of our readership in the territory, we will.

While not reflected in its title, the Committee on Natural Resources (which for many years was called the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs) has primary legislative jurisdiction over all federal matters involving the U.S. territories.  So important is this committee that all delegates from the five Caribbean and Pacific U.S. territories, including American Samoa, are automatically assigned to serve on it; rarely has any of them left it.  Moreover, considering the current major issue of President Obama’s expansion of the U.S. Pacific conservation zone, which could have devastating impact on our local fishing industry, the subcommittee that oversees fisheries and oceans as well as insular legislation, could not be more important to us.  Yet, the media says nothing and the people slumber.

Exactly who was on the delegation?   For starters, the chairman of the Full Committee, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), was the leader.  When Obama announced expansion of the conservation zone in June (without any consultation with Faleomavaega), Hastings issued a statement opposing it.  Yet, if the local media covered his objection at the time it was announced, we missed it.  In their coverage of the stopover, neither Samoa News nor KHJ-FM made any mention of it.  Moreover, if the governor discussed the problem with Hastings, he has not told the press and four days now after the visit, it has to be wondered if the media has even asked.

[While it is possible, though not likely, Faleomavaega’s input on the conservation zone was not sought because of his illness and extended absence from the House, despite his having been an early and ardent supporter of Obama’s first nomination, perhaps he can take solace in the knowledge that many House Democrats are complaining the President is ignoring them, according to a story in The Hill.]

To further underscore the magnitude of the media disconnect between the visit and the issues, Samoa News in its August 13 edition (two days after the departure of the CODEL) carried a story top of page one left side under the headline “Marine Sanctuary Expansion Looms”  and published yet another page one story the following day .  These stories describe efforts underway to write letters of opposition to the President and a resolution working its way through the Fono.  Yet not a word on Doc Hastings’ opposition, which supports ASG’s position.  Not a single word.  Here is the chairman of the powerful committee that has legislative jurisdiction over the issue and his fisheries and oceans subcommittee chairman.  Was the delegation briefed on these efforts and was their support enlisted?  If so, why has the governor not said anything?  If not, why has the media not asked?

If it were not so serious for the future of our economy, this tactical misfire would be comical.  In its way, it is reminiscent of an amusing video well circulated on the Internet of police racing into a bank to stop a robbery in progress but in their effort to get into the bank overlooking right in front of them the robbers in the getaway car, which maneuvers between the cop cars to escape undetected.  Other questions that seemed to have slipped the minds of our reporters:  Why was this only a refueling stop?  Why was the media barred?  Why did the delegation not even leave the VIP room?  What did the governor discuss with them?   Are these not questions the media should be asking?

The delegation also included Frank Lucas (R-OK), chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture which, among other things, is the committee of jurisdiction over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more commonly known here as food stamps, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, both of which are of fundamental importance to American Samoa. 

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) was also on the delegation.  He is one of the so-called “cardinals” who chair the 13 subcommittees of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations.  Kingston’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies has funding responsibility  for these departments and agencies: Education, Health and Human Services, Labor and other related agencies including the Social Security Administration and the National Labor Relations Board.  It also oversees workforce safety and development, health programs, social services, education, and retirement security, and related functions.  We receive funding from virtually all of these bodies.  Is that not worth a question or two? 

Kingston, whose congressional district is home to the Chicken of the Sea processing plant in Lyons, GA, also is the House member who tried to reduce the “Buy American” content percentage for tuna in the agriculture appropriations bill.  Is that not something about which the people might like to know more?  The jursidiction over Labor also includes minimum wage.

Then there was Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.  Might not Utu Abe Malae have wanted to spend some time with him.  Or Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), who is the Ranking Member of the Agriculture subcommittee that handles legislation on rural development, including telephone service?  Might not the ASTCA officials have wanted time with him?  Or Del. Gregorio Sablan (I-MP), the Ranking Member of the Fish, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular subcommittee?

So, now the big question on our minds if not on those of our crack local reporters: Where was Eni?
 
Readers of this blog well know there is nary a congressional delegation to anywhere in the world that he has missed in a quarter century in office--until he fell ill last October.  Since that time, all we know of his travels is that he was evacuated to Hawaii for medical treatment, then to somewhere on the Mainland for “rehabilitation,” and finally to Washington, where he apparently continues rehabilitation to this day.

As we previously reported, his district director, Fai’ivae Alex Godinet (who, with the governor, was at the airport to greet the delegation), recently announced Faleomavaega would seek re-election, on his behalf asked for and received from the local Democratic Party endorsement (unanimous) for that purpose.  He apologized for Faleomavaega not being at the meeting, with a Talanei.com story characterizing him as saying “due to the work load and the work schedule with the congressional office in Washington DC, Faleomavaega is unable to make the party's meeting.”  More recently,  Radio Australia confirmed with Faleomavaega’s sister Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin-Finau, ASG’s Director of Education, that Faleomavaega would be a candidate, saying “He is doing fine and he has decided to run,” and adding, "He is busy in Washington doing his work there.”

Hello?

Congress is in summer recess and there are no committee hearings or other business going on in Washington.  Virtually every member of the House and Senate is back in their districts or states working and campaigning if not traveling abroad in congressional delegations such as the one that stopped here Sunday.  So the question remains: given the importance of this delegation, given his membership and seniority on this committee and given his proven penchant for travel, where was he?  What possibly could be of more importance than being at close quarters with these important Members of Congress on his home soil and elsewhere for a couple of weeks, particularly when most of them are ruling Republicans, to whom he has little regular access in Washington?

To its credit, Radio KHJ did air a short story about one congressional candidate being at the airport to greet the delegation that gave a little insight on the discussions and the Samoa Post published a longer story on Thursday, but it is an on-line newspaper with limited circulation.  Samoa News published nothing.  It is likely the candidate who did show up got word of the visit through an extensive network of contacts in Washington, while the other five announced aspirants to Faleomavaega’s seat were in the dark.

Why all the secrecy and lack of access?   It seems reasonable to assume that Faleomavaega still has health problems that preclude his travel.  Otherwise, anyone who travels as much as he does would have been on this delegation.  Perhaps in hopes his absence would go unnoticed, it is reasonable to speculate that he asked the delegation to keep their visit low key.  It appears he has succeeded.  It has been four days now and there has been no commentary by Samoa News even though the editor recently published a signed editorial that expressed great frustration at Faleomavaega’s absence from the territory for over nine months without explanation.

In fact, this trip might have been a welcome test for him as to whether his absence would continue to be unnoticed.  The press coverage suggests it has.  His strategy well may be to stay away from American Samoa altogether and campaign from his arm chair (or wheel chair?) in Washington through newspaper ads and softly voiced radio commercials begging voters to forgive him for his absence and pleading for one final term to complete his vital work on behalf of the people.  

Why not?  It could work. Anyone who has seen his recent photographs knows how bad he looks.  We would welcome the opportunity for him to come home so we could see for ourselves. However, without strong media or public criticism over his extended absence, he very well may calculate he will lose fewer votes by being away than by letting people see how old, ill, infirm and immobile he is.  He surely has our media bamboozled.  And he has the system just as he wants it because of how he fine-tuned it. 

His reelection prospects are vastly aided by the one and only American Samoa-related bill he has had enacted into law during his time in Congress: the delegate election plurality bill This law, passed a decade ago, which detractors derisively have labeled the “Faleomavaega Perpetual Reelection Act,” amended the federal law establishing our congressional seat to eliminate the requirement that a candidate win a majority of the vote in order to be elected.  Now only a plurality is needed.  In a multi-candidate race, the incumbent could win reelection with substantially less than a majority of the vote.  In the past, the top two vote-getters would face each other in a runoff.  That would have been dangerous for Faleomavaega in his current condition.

Faleomavaega has a very loyal support base in vote-rich Leone and the surrounding villages in Tutuila’s Western District.  The more opponents he has, the fewer votes he needs to win as long as he holds those Leone votes.  It is no accident that the well paid director of his district office is a senior high chief in Leone.  Petitions are circulating now and it is speculated he may have as many as nine opponents this year.  We will know on September 2 when petitions are due in the election office.

One other reason he has gotten away with only minimal criticism about being absent for so long both here and in Washington is that public attention has been diverted by the coincidental absence of the governor, who also has been ill and away for much of this same period.  However, Governor Lolo, who took ill in Washington in February and then recuperated in Hawaii—also without much explanation, returned to duty last week after five months away, so it will be interesting to see if public attention and the media spotlight now will turn on the delegate, especially as we move into high campaign season after Labor Day.

Lolo’s illness has fueled speculation that he may retire after a single term, thus prompting his predecessor, former governor Togiola, to get into the race for Congress.  There are those who believe that Togiola would like to use the congressional seat to regain public visibility and as a springboard back into another run at governor in 2016.  None of this conjecture has found its way into media coverage, of course, just the coconut wireless.

The on-line version of the August 1 Samoa News editorial “Gong Show: Another word for politics — Samoan style”  that asked Faleomavaega to come clean with the public on his health and intentions prompted one reader to urge the paper not to publish his propaganda in the meantime, to which the webmaster replied “Hey we're not stupid.”
 
When the media asked why they were barred from the congressional stop, they were told it was for security reasons and was requested by the delegation.  Perhaps so, but this is a taxpayer funded trip and we have our doubts.  We also will be following with interest the other stops this delegation is making in New Zealand, Australia and especially the Northern Marianas.  With the Northern Marianas delegate a member of the delegation and this being an election year for him as well, we would be very surprised if he would limit media coverage when the group is on Saipan.  Moreover, the robust Saipan media would not tolerate it.  Let’s hope our media watches on-line (as we will) and reports to the people.

Even though it has been four days since the “Faleomavaegaless” delegation was here, maybe we will hear yet from the Samoa News editor again but the way the paper and the radio station finessed his absence from this visit—which could have been far more consequential than it appears to have been, he seems to believe the local media is stupid, even if they do not.  Who can blame him?  He got away with it and the media deserves Gong Show treatment for it.  Drink up that champagne, Eni’s staff, drink up.

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