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Equal Status

As a matter of simple equity, Congress should accede to the bid of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to have a nonvoting Delegate in the House, putting this U.S. territory on a par with all other holdings such as American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. (The District’s Delegate should have full voting rights, but that’s an issue for a different editorial.)

In an interview with Roll Call last week, the commonwealth’s resident representative, Pedro “Pete” Tenorio, said, “We are part of America. I think the greatest thing any American citizen would want is to be represented in the lawmaking body of their country.” It’s an impossible argument to refute, but at the moment the Mariana Islands has a status different from all other U.S. possessions.

All the other Delegates can introduce legislation and vote in committee, giving them at least a modicum of political leverage. The five current Delegates are all Democrats and also have the right to vote in the party Caucus. As it happens, the new commonwealth government is Republican, removing any partisan reason for the leadership in Congress not to even the playing field.

A lobbyist working on behalf of the commonwealth said the territory’s current status on Capitol Hill makes its representative “more like an ambassador” from a foreign country than a Member of Congress. The islands, scene of the World War II battle of Saipan, have been part of the United States since 1975. They apparently were denied a Delegate because, at the time, their population was only 30,000. But that’s now grown to 80,000, larger than American Samoa’s 70,000. The third Pacific possession, Guam, has a population of 163,000.

In its bid for elevated status, the island territory has hired a powerhouse lobbying firm, PodestaMattoon, and has won support from Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the new ranking member on the House Resources Committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), told Roll Call that he is exploring the issue but, “I’m not committed one way or another at this point.”

One complication on the road to change is the covenant Congress adopted to govern the islands, which permits more lax immigration and environmental standards than exist elsewhere in the United States, plus a lower minimum wage. Such rules, plus the opportunity to avoid U.S. tariffs, have produced a boom in low-cost manufacturing. Organized labor objects to the islands’ lower standards, believing they cost jobs elsewhere in the United States. However, Tenorio says the new government is making changes in its standards and is working on terms with members of both parties. We say: The islands deserve to be represented in Congress precisely to argue the terms of its governing covenant.

It’s only fair.

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