OP-ED: A QUESTION FOR CONGRESSWOMAN AMATA

Po’o tatou fesagaa’i i le ava fatafata ma Amerika? Is there mutual respect (not merely in words, but in policy as well) between the two countries?

Recently, American Samoa’s Congresswoman Aumua Amata wrote a response to current discussions revolving around the recent denial of American Samoa’s symbolic vote in the COTW (Committee of the Whole). To say the least, her response was discouraging.

It reminded me of an old saying in Samoa: “Ua tatou Fesilafa’i I le Ava Fatafata,” which stems from the story of a meeting between a tufuga Samoa (Master-Builder) and Malietoa (Samoa’s King) who traveled from Manu’a to Malie to build a new Fale-Samoa (traditional Samoan house) for the king. As they greeted each other, Malietoa asked the tufuga to sit on the furthest open side of the Fale reserved for the most distinguished guests, while he sat at his usual position opposite. The tufuga then uttered the above words to Malietoa praising their distinguished meeting. The significance of this story is the tufuga’s recognition that his role and position–subordinate to Malietoa’s–was recognized and mutually respected by the king of Samoa.

A fitting question for our Congresswoman would be: “po’o tatou fesagaa’i i le ava fatafata ma Amerika? Is there mutual respect (not merely in words, but in policy as well) between the two countries? Additionally, even if it is merely a “symbolic vote,” as the Congresswoman’s statement suggests, what future possibilities could symbolic representation in the Committee of the Whole present? And why would Republicans not recognize the voice of territories if, according to Amata, the vote is irrelevant in passing issues?

According to a recent article in PCN (Pacific News Center), the amendment Amata referred to in her response that Delegates can now “Chair” the Committee of the Whole and NOT vote suggests party tensions and personal interests that should be of concern. The article, which also references Guam’s Representative Madeleine Bordallo states: “Bordallo and Democratic leadership again pressed for the delegate vote this year, but with a continued strong GOP majority back in the new Congress…GOP leaders remain unwilling to give up any perceived power.”

Furthermore, “Radewagen [Amata] claimed in the last Congress, she was blindsided when Democratic leadership wrote to the chairman of the Rules Committee, seeking the delegate vote. She accused Democrats of politicizing the issue. Her spokesman said she wanted the delegates to be able to chair the House when it sits as the Committee of the Whole, but NOT vote.” It further quotes Amata as referring to the rules change as a good first step to getting a larger seat at the table,” while representative Bordallo pleaded that millions of Americans, which is what we are when defending the constitution, deserve at least a symbolic vote. A probing question is: what significance is a “larger seat at the table” if the territories own views do not make it to the floor of the COTW? Furthermore, her suggestion that not including a proposal for the symbolic vote would be a waste of “valuable political capital” contradicts congressional allocation of funds that are afforded according to delegate roles and traveling distance, which could also be revised accordingly. So, no extra funds would be extracted that would negate American Samoa’s “larger agenda for the next two years.”

The point is, as public servants for citizens of the territory and role model for all others residing in America, our elected officials have the full backing of the people granted their interests are parallel with the concerns of the people, something the Congresswoman’s Republican party openly displays a disconnect towards. Although it is understandable that politics is ubiquitous in Washington, we should hold any and all representatives of the Samoan people responsible when they begin to prioritize long-term party affiliation above long-term interests of the territory and Samoan culture.

The roles of our public figures should encompass more than being SEEN and rubbing elbows with Washington elites. The people of American Samoa expect our leaders to look past the binaries (Democrat and Republican) of Washington politics. Our representative to the United States should look past political devices and avoid insulting the intelligence of American Samoan citizens with play on words like, “House Adopts Republican Rules package,” to rephrase simple Yes and No explanations of a territorial vote in the Committee of the Whole. One news source stated that Republicans insisted that a delegate vote, even in the Committee of the Whole, is “unconstitutional.”

The question, then, is why such a vote would be viewed as unconstitutional if that vote was previously endorsed by Democrats and upheld by a Federal judge. Furthermore, the same news source revealed that generally when Democrats have had a majority in the House the Committee has granted voting privileges, which can only be nullified if territorial votes were to be a deciding factor on an issue. Whereby, in actuality, the voices of the territories would not be “demeaning” (as suggested by Amata) because they would actually provide a platform and serve as a medium for specific views of the territory. Simply put, our vote can serve as a secondary process for voting members to exercise more discernment on these issues, something Republicans have avoided with the acceptance of the so called “Republican Rules Package.” At the center of Guam Representative Bordallo’s argument is the basic respect and dignity territories deserve to participate, not partially, but holistically in the political process even if it is merely symbolic. Yes, I am fully aware that territories are not granted the same privileges as states under the US constitution. However, American Samoa’s citizens have made enormous contributions to the democratic process that ensures those same states their rights.

Consequently, under the recent rejection of a symbolic vote, the voices of the people remain smothered under the pageantry of chair positions that seem more self-interested rather than serving the interests of the territory, both present and future. Needless to say, the sacrifices our men and women have made in securing the freedoms of all citizens of the United States have come at the most ultimate price. With the highest rate of US military enlistment, more than any other US territory, or US state, I think the concerns of the people of American Samoa deserve a more distinct and clear voice given this reality. It is an issue that deserves special attention from our only representative to the United States. Unfortunately, this is clearly not the case given recent developments.

Furthermore, to namedrop the Representative from Puerto Rico (the only other Republican Rep) adds no substance to the argument at all, especially given the current political and economic turmoil PR is facing that has left the territory completely vulnerable. One news source reported: “…Puerto Rico’s new governor warned that the government of the U.S. territory could shut down if dramatic measures to offset its financial crisis aren’t taken soon.” It makes you wonder had not the territory of PR had a much broader platform to express these issues–in relation to the issues of their constituents–things may have turned out otherwise. That, of course, is all speculative talk concerning a territorial symbolic vote that Republicans called “unconstitutional” when they gained majority control immediately after Obama was elected. I should mention a notable response to the Republican Rules package Amata proudly refers to came from House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (MD). Hoyer stated:

“…. these rules continue the Republican policy of denying a voice to the people of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. When I was Majority Leader, we allowed [the Delegates and Resident Commissioner] to vote in the Committee of the Whole. It showed them respect. It gave them a reason to come to the Floor. It gave them an opportunity to have their constituents see how they felt on a particular issue by putting their name up on the board. I regret that we were unable to continue that policy, Mr. Chairman.”

In sum, what remains to be seen in the coming years under a Trump presidency is whether or not the Congresswoman will be able to make these kinds of distinctions given some of the extreme proposals Mr. Trump has promised, i.e. immigration, social security reform, and of course, a repeal to the Affordable Care Act. Such a repeal would have significant implications for American Samoa given the territories exempt status from all provisions of the ACA, and especially the possibility of major shifts in the cost of private insurance especially as it pertains to the future of Medicare and Medicaid.

Let the record show, my intent is not to slander the role and passion the Congresswoman has demonstrated in the past, as well as in her current role as American Samoa’s representative to the United States. However, that role and responsibility is accountable to the people and future of American Samoa, a country that cherishes symbolism as long as it values the collective and communal spirit of the people and the fa’a Samoa.

A symbolic vote may be “meaningless” to others, but for the people of American Samoa, it is their voice in the Saofa’iga a Matai (the company of chiefs). It is a simple gesture, a small voice with paramount implications. Until then, America has yet to recognize our voice in the manner of Ava Fatafata.

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