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Mariana Islands in Sea of Isolation

Just 3,800 miles west of Hawaii, well within range of the Philippines, lies the only inhabited patch of land in America without a Member of Congress or Delegate to watch after it.

But government officials in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, an American holding that rivals Guam for distance from the mainland, hope this will soon change.

New leadership at home and auspicious developments on Capitol Hill have each done their part to revive the commonwealth’s flagging bid for a nonvoting Delegate. And in the surest sign the island chain’s government now means business, it has conscripted lobbying powerhouse PodestaMattoon to do its Congressional legwork.

“We are part of America,” said Pedro “Pete” Tenorio, the commonwealth’s resident representative in Washington. “I think the greatest thing any American citizen would want is to be represented in the lawmaking body of their country.”

At home, Tenorio added, islanders “feel they are not fully American unless they are represented” in Congress.

There is far more than symbolic status at stake, even if the Delegate would not be permitted to vote on the House floor.

Congress has given nonvoting Delegate status to the country’s five other territories and independent commonwealths — American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico (through a so-called resident commissioner) and the Virgin Islands.

The arrangement enables their representatives to introduce legislation and vote in committee, which confers upon them a degree of leverage in the process that they otherwise would not have.

The five current Delegates, all Democrats, also have the right to vote in the party Caucus, giving them a modicum of sway over the leadership and individual Members.

The Northern Mariana Islands remains an outsider to this process.

“It’s the difference between being an ambassador and being a Member of Congress,” said one former Capitol Hill aide who has had strong ties to the commonwealth as a lobbyist.

As far as the islands’ status on Capitol Hill, right now “it’s almost like being from a foreign country,” the lobbyist added.

PodestaMattoon’s Missi Tessier said, “It’s a question of elevation and legitimacy — how they’re seen by Members and how they’re seen by the rest of the body of Congress.”

The commonwealth’s ongoing exclusion from the Delegate ranks comes even as the island chain’s affairs have attracted the scrupulous attention of lawmakers.

The agreement that joined the Northern Mariana Islands to the United States in 1975 was somewhat unique to the island chain. It permitted the islands to maintain separate — and more lax — standards on immigration and environmental policy. It even specified a lower minimum wage.

Foreign companies, lured also by the prospect of avoiding U.S. tariffs, thronged to the islands.

Over time, the commonwealth became a haven for low-cost manufacturing; it also emerged as a key battleground for organized labor and its Congressional allies, who argued that the favorable rules hurt workers on the American mainland.

It was in this atmosphere that Delegate status for the commonwealth was last put to a committee vote, in 1996. The measure failed.

“We didn’t have a champion at that time. We didn’t have a lobbyist,” Tenorio said, looking back.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who chairs the Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction, said he has spoken recently with representatives from the commonwealth about their bid for a Delegate and is interested in exploring the precedents set when the other American holdings were awarded their representatives.

“We’re going to look at it,” Pombo said of the Delegate question. “I’m not committed one way or another at this point.”

Pombo acknowledged that the commonwealth’s role as a touchstone in disputes over immigration, labor and environmental policy will likely come into play as the Delegate question moves forward.

“Anything we do is going to bring up those issues,” the panel chairman said. “They’ll inevitably be part of [the discussion].”

The commonwealth, which includes the tourist destination of Saipan, was not awarded a Congressional Delegate when it first joined the United States because the islands, which at the time had about 30,000 residents, did not meet a minimum population requirement.

That requirement has since been rescinded.

In any case, the Northern Mariana Islands, which was the last territory or commonwealth to come under the U.S. umbrella, is no longer the kid sister it once was.

Fueled by the tourism and manufacturing industries, the islands now have a population of roughly 80,000 residents, according to a July estimate by the CIA, which makes the commonwealth larger than American Samoa.

Without a Congressional Delegate, the Northern Mariana Islands is in the quixotic position of watching from the margins as Members debate the intricacies of the covenant by which the island governs itself.

“When something doesn’t go our way, we want to point the finger at somebody,” Tenorio said about the value of having an elected representative to hold accountable. “Right now, we have to point to everybody.”

The commonwealth’s new government is putting its faith in new blood atop the Resources panel, which has jurisdiction.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the new ranking member of the Resources Committee, is an ardent supporter of the island chain’s bid for Delegate status, his aides say.

The commonwealth is also relying on new tactics, beginning with efforts to confer regularly with its critics on Capitol Hill about progress back home.

One of those is Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the powerful Caucus elder who preceded Rahall as the top Democrat on Resources.

Tenorio said the new government has reached out to Miller and his aides to keep them apprised of developments in the islands.

(Tenorio said that Miller was right to have had concerns and that officials on the islands are actively working on changes. Still, he insisted that some U.S. standards “are not practical out there.”)

“Things are changing, and this is perhaps the reason that Congress will look closer at this issue now,” Tenorio said.

One thing that isn’t changing for the time being, however, is the covenant. But Tenorio argued that Congress would have an easier time working through it if the Northern Mariana Islands had a seat at the table and could offer perspective in the debate.

“Maybe the agreement is short of perfect,” Tenorio conceded, “but it’s the will of the people [of the commonwealth] and that is what America’s all about.”

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