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Students from the territory attend “Mock Congress” for the first time

reporters@samoanews.com

The Junior Statesman Association, long affiliated with the territories through their summer school programs, extended to the U.S. territories this year an invitation to their annual Winter Congress. It was the first time any of the territories were given the opportunity to participate, and forty students in American Samoa applied for the privilege. Six students were accepted.
 
At a time when trust in Congress is at an all-time low, this may have seemed a difficult year to attend, but the students who accepted the challenge made it clear that — unlike many of the elected officials in Washington right now — they were there to work.
 
Sometimes referred to as the “Mock Congress”, this year’s JSA Winter Congress was held from Feb 22 - 24 in Washington, D.C, and Samoa News understands that the entire event was scholarship funded for students from the insular territories.
 
For most of the students, this was their first visit to our nation’s capital. The group was also able to visit the White House, the Department of Interior and the Department of Education (they commented on its amazing size, as the USDOE buildings go on for several city blocks.) They were also able to visit Capitol Hill, including the Subcommittee Room where our Congressman, Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin is assigned.
 
The Lincoln Monument, a place which evokes great awe and reverence, was visited on a special Moonlight Monument tour. They said they also felt privileged to visit the Martin Luther King monument, a stirring site built to honor his life and courage.
 
Michael Montenegro, a Junior at South Pacific Academy and the unofficial leader of the delegation gave the opening remarks on behalf of all the territories — American Samoa, Guam, Saipan, FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) the U.S.Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Puerto Rico was in attendance, but they were not considered one of the insular areas, according to our students’ chaperone, Tapuitea McMullin, who is an employee of the local Department of Interior field office, and official JSA coordinator for the territory.
 
Before leaving on their trip, the students were given a very special assignment: it was their job to create a bill and propose legislation — in essence, to create a bill in exactly the same way bills are created and proposed on Capitol Hill. All attendees were assigned to either the House or the Senate for this student congress.
 
Perhaps the U.S. Congress could learn something from the students. In two working days, the group passed 21 bills.
 
These are the bills which American Samoa’s delegation proposed:
 
* Fa’amaoni Anthony Schaff-Ili (Tafuna HS) sophomore and Laumau Lealuga (Tafuna HS) junior: jointly submitted a bill to mandate universal background checks for firearm purchases. (A timely bill, as this student congress occurred before the Newtown massacre in Connecticut)
 
*Tiare Drabble (South Pacific Academy) sophomore: A bill to make every state a Right-to-Work State. “Right to Work” said Tiare, “means people aren’t forced to join unions as a term of employment”. This passed the House and Senate.
 
This was the only bill which passed from any of the territories.
 
*Molly Ann Schuster and Malaetele Lefiti (both sophomores at Samoana HS) submitted jointly a bill to decrease the unemployment rate by 2% by penalizing companies who were off-shoring jobs outside the U.S. Her bill failed in the Mock Congress Senate, but passed in the House.
 
Michael Montenegro (a Junior at SPA) submitted a bill that mandates strengthening nutritional education in primary and secondary school - to have classes in nutrition begin in the lower grades. According to Michael, this was meant to be a preventative measure, something which, if implemented, would eventually make a dent in rising health care costs.
 
The students, who were gone almost two weeks including travel time, lost some days of school, which they had to make up upon their return. Samoa News asked about that, and Tiare Drabble responded, “It was all worthwhile—it was worth all of the makeup work.”
 
FROM NINETY DEGREES TO NINE DEGREES
 
Describing their trip, the group told Samoa News at a recent luncheon, “We went from 90 degrees to 9 degrees. The plane stopped in Chicago en route, where they got their first blast of cold air.
 
“Seeing your breath when you breathe… and everyone is so bundled up… with us islanders in our little jackets.” they laughed, “The first thing we noticed, was how cold it was… we had to go shopping for warm clothes!”
 
All 900 students in attendance at the Winter Congress were housed at the DoubleTree Inn, Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, near the Pentagon. A welcoming orientation was given strictly for the territories, and it was there they received their agendas, as this was their first time in attendance at this yearly event.
 
A tour of the White House was on the morning’s agenda, then on to Capitol Hill to call in at our congressman’s office— located in the Sam Rayburn Building— and on the way to his office, it began to snow.
 
Michael said the security people at the capitol building asked about the ‘ie faitaga’ which the young men were wearing. “Is that a new fashion statement?” asked the guard. The girls were wearing boots with their puletasi, something which kept them warm, but felt a little odd, according to the young ladies who are used to wearing sandals with their island wear.
 
They admitted they were “jumping up and down to stay warm.”
 
Before their sessions began, they were able to hear presentations and lectures from the media and policy institutes, including sessions with David Wessel, Economics Editor for the Wall Street Journal and Matt Vasilogambros, a reporter with the National Journal. The Economic Policy Institute, State Department and U.S. Institute of Peace were also given a chance to address the group.
 
LESSONS LEARNED
 
What did you take away from this? was the question asked by Samoa News.
 
Michael Montenegro was the first to respond, saying, “When you go there and see what goes on, you see what the future could hold — a Congress that actually can work and get things done.”
 
Molly Schuster said, “I saw the process, how Congress functions— I saw how bills become laws and it was overall a really good experience— but I wouldn’t want to work there.”
 
Tiara Drabble noted, “When we first got there, it was really intimidating, but I learned not to be scared. I realized that everyone was probably just as scared as I was. It was enriching and the whole experience gave me strength. I was scared of public speaking, but I’m now less scared… It was good for me on a personal level.”
 
Laumau Lealuga (Tafuna HS) said, “I learned the process of writing a bill– it’s mostly hard work! We had to search for information and be very specific.”
 
And of course they relayed the fun they had at places like California Pizza Kitchen in the mall.
 
They agreed upon this: the biggest thing they took away — was the fact that there were so many different opinions expressed by others attending the event — many of whom are looking at careers in politics or political science.
 
“It was interesting to hear all of the different sides to arguments. It expanded and enriched the conversation,” said Montenegro.
 
The moderators for the Mock Congress were students themselves, and according to our delegation, “there were some very angry debates.”
 
One of those debates centered on the War on Drugs, with many students expressing the belief that the government should legalize all drugs, thus ending the war on drugs as a legal problem, and looking at it as a social and health problem instead.
 
“We should be using the money to help rehabilitate drug users instead of incarcerating them,” was a commonly held sentiment.
 
Another debate, timely indeed, centered on the question of who should be able to possess firearms. “Should mentally ill people be allowed to possess them?” was a question for which they had to come up with points for their side of the debate.
 
“There was a big philosophical divide, but we were able to compromise” said Tiare. The list of bills they were able to pass was a long one, according to the students, who called their end product “ a phone book” for its length.
 
Two students from our group want degrees in Journalism, one is interested in the legal profession, and one is leaning toward engineering. One student added that, based on what she saw, a career in politics is not out of the question.
 
The American Samoa students did agree on a few things: “The people in Congress make their jobs look ten times harder than they actually are___” and “Congress would be better if the parties would set aside their differences and learn to work together for the betterment of all the people.”
 
Anthony stated, “It’s better to let your opponents pass a law than to have nothing done at all.” Amendments can be made, he said, adding that “ the repeal process should be simplified.”
 
In the end, they all agreed upon one thing: “It was an awesome experience.”



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