By Susan Crabtree - 02/01/06 12:00 AM EST
Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) will not commit to scheduling a vote on a bill that would give the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands a nonvoting delegate in Congress, even though he is a co-sponsor of the measure and doing so would set him apart from the policies of his scandal-scarred predecessor, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
The House Resources Committee passed the bill in May of last year, the second time it has approved the measure in as many years. But DeLay, acting in his position of majority leader, a job that carries the responsibility of scheduling bills for votes on the house floor, repeatedly failed to move the delegate bill.
THE ABRAMOFF SPECTER
DeLay has long opposed any legislation that could force the U.S. territory, which is located in the South Pacific, to adopt tougher U.S. labor laws and other regulations. GOP sources familiar with the matter say DeLay opposes the measure because he is concerned that giving the islands a delegate could raise public concern about the islands’ labor conditions and lead to stricter labor laws, which in turn, could affect economic growth in the islands.
But Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who has repeatedly clashed with DeLay over labor issues in the islands, has linked the bill to the ongoing federal investigations into once-powerful GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s business dealings, some of which include Abramoff’s past representation of the Marianas at a time when the lobbyist was closely associated with DeLay and his staff.
During the bill’s committee mark-up last year, Miller referred to news reports about Abramoff’s role in killing a similar bill in 1996 that would have given the territory a delegate.
“As a result of recent revelations in the press, we now understand far better why those bipartisan reforms — and even this legislation to create a voting delegate — have been obstructed,” Miller said.
Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, (R-Calif.), the chief sponsor of the legislation, says the U.S. territory has a right to be represented in Congress. The bill also enjoys the support of prominent GOP leaders including Blunt, Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Conference Secretary John Doolittle (R-Calif.), whose business dealings with Abramoff also have come under scrutiny.
Pombo is publicly backing Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) bid to become majority leader.
When asked whether he would schedule a vote on the bill if he were to win permanent status as majority leader tomorrow, Blunt responded with a blanket statement about all bills and committee chairmen.
“Chairmen prioritize legislation as it is reported out of their committees,” Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor said in an e-mailed response. “Congressman Blunt will work with all of the committee chairmen to move their priority bills across the House floor.”
Pombo spokesman Matt Streit said: “[Pombo] will work with whoever is majority leader to get the bill passed. He definitely would like to see it on the floor this year.”
Boehner, who is not a co-sponsor of the legislation, also did not commit to a vote on the House floor if he were elected majority leader. But he noted that the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, sometimes referred to by the abbreviation CNMI, is the only U.S. territory that lacks a delegate and said that the fact that the Resources Committee has “repeatedly” passed a bill should “advocate for a vote.”
“Expanding congressional representation for any territory is a pretty big decision, one that the conference should discuss and debate,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said in an e-mail. “Mr. Boehner has great respect for the bill’s sponsors and would offer them the opportunity to make their case before the conference and our constituents.”
“The fact it’s repeatedly passed Chairman Pombo’s committee would advocate for a vote, as would the fact the CNMI is the only U.S. territory without nonvoting representation,” Smith said.
Michael Steel, spokesman for Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who also is running for majority leader, said his boss voted for the delegate bill when it passed the Resources Committee by voice vote in 1996.
“I suppose you can view that as implied support,” Steel said, though he noted that his boss does not have strong feelings about the matter.
The Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over territory issues, approved a similar measure in 2004 that never made it to the floor.
In 2005, Dan Allen, who was then DeLay’s spokesman, said it simply fell victim to an end-of-the year push to get other bills passed.
Allen would not say whether his boss would support or oppose the bill this Congress. He said only that DeLay routinely works with committee chairmen and other members “on legislation that is ready to come to the floor for consideration.”
But several GOP aides familiar with the issue said at the time that DeLay would try to block the legislation again.
A CLOTH ECONOMY
The Marianas government severed its relationship with Abramoff in 2002, long before last year’s delegate bill came up. But Miller and some of the other Democrats on the Resources Committee have asked Pombo to open an investigation into Abramoff’s past work for the islands on issues including the 1996 delegate measure.
Pombo and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the Resources committee, forwarded Miller’s request to the Justice Department last summer.
In 1996, Abramoff was working for then-Marianas Gov. Froilan C. Tenorio, a vocal proponent of self-governance, who was opposed to a delegate measure being pushed by some of his opponents.
While the reason for his opposition is unclear, several congressional aides said he may have been concerned that a Hill delegate would weaken his political power base and spur more intense scrutiny of the island’s labor and immigration laws.
The Marianas economy relies heavily on garment factories where laborers, many of them from China and the Philippines, are paid far less than the U.S. minimum wage to make clothing eligible to carry a “Made in the U.S.A.” label.
In a letter dated Sept. 5, 1996, released by the islands’ Washington office, Abramoff reported to then-Gov. Tenorio that he had some “good news” regarding “the effort to kill the delegate bill.”
“It looks like we have been able to successfully remove the delegate bill from the House Resources mark-up,” Abramoff wrote.
He added that even if the committee approved the bill, he would use his “connections within the leadership” to make sure it did not come to the floor.
At the time the letter was written, there were bills in both the Senate and House aimed at improving the treatment of garment-industry workers. While DeLay and other opponents agreed that there were some problems with the treatment of workers, they said the islands could resolve them without interference from Washington.
Last year, the island’s lobbyist, Dan Mattoon, a former aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Hastert told him the bill should be given “full consideration.”
During a trip to the islands over 1997-1998 New Year’s winter recess, DeLay called Abramoff “one of my closest and dearest friends.”
In 1999, during a heated contest for control of leadership positions in the islands’ legislature, former DeLay Chief of Staff Ed Buckham and Michael Scanlon, DeLay’s press secretary at the time who would go on to become a business associate of Abramoff’s, traveled to the islands.
The pair reportedly helped engineer a victory for Ben Fitial with promises of money for an airport and breakwater repairs to two lawmakers who switched sides to vote for Fitial, who previously served as an aide to a garment-factory owner.
Fitial won the legislature’s speakership and then assisted in giving Abramoff a lobbying contract worth $1.6 million. Congress then approved the funds for the airport and breakwater repairs, and DeLay served on the conference committee that provided them, although he has denied any wrongdoing in the matter.
Scanlon went on to work for Abramoff, and earlier this month both pleaded guilty to bilking Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars.
Fitial became governor this month and is now demanding “full restitution” from Abramoff’s lobby firms, according to a report Monday in the Saipan Tribune.
Owners of textile companies in the Mariana Islands donated some $500,000 to the U.S. Family Network, an organization run by Buckham with close ties to DeLay, and the Texas Republican told the owners he would block legislation that would boost their labor costs, according to a report in The Washington Post.