In this issue:
Language I authored to increase Veterans Benefit Administration outreach to veterans living in the Northern Marianas and other underserved areas of our nation remains in the Fiscal Year 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, H.R. 4974, passed by the House on Thursday. I want to make sure that veterans living in remote areas, particularly disabled and elderly veterans, have the opportunity for face-to-face assistance from VBA staff. Also included in the spending bill is $9 million for land acquisition for the Air Force divert activities and exercise at an unspecified location in the Northern Marianas. H.R. 4974 passed by a vote of 295 to 129 and now heads to the Senate for action.
The House passed H.R. 4909, the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (277-147) this week, retaining the Northern Mariana Islands-related provisions approved earlier by the House Armed Services Committee.
The 2017 defense policy bill authorizes $602 billion for military activities and construction by the Department of Defense and defense-related activities of the Department of Energy. It includes a 2.1 percent pay raise for military personnel next year and updates the Uniform Code of Military Justice to include new protections for victims of military sexual assaults. The bill also benefits the Asian American and Pacific Islander community by requiring both a report on the demographic composition of our military service academies and a review of the service records of AAPI war veterans to determine if discriminatory practices prevented them from being awarded the Medal of Honor. H.R. 4909 now heads to the Senate.
We were able to add a requirement to the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act this week that could lead to more federal aid for feeding school children in the Northern Mariana Islands. The provision, included when the bill passed out of my Education and Workforce Committee, requires the Department of Agriculture to report to Congress within one year on the cost differences between school meals served in the states and those served in the insular areas. If the difference is large, the data could be used to justify a funding increase. The CNMI Public School System Food and Nutrition Services currently operates the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. The schools serve approximately 14,000 meals every day and many private schools and daycare programs also use the meal service. Keeping children fed is critical to their health and their ability to learn.
Typhoon Soudelor did millions of dollars in damage to schools, electricity, and other public infrastructure in the Northern Mariana Islands, but federal funds are paying for 90 percent of the cost of recovery. This week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency obligated $10,248,574 as the 90 percent share of $11,387,305 that the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation had to spend to repair or replace power poles and electrical lines after the storm. The funding goes directly to the Commonwealth government, which is then responsible for handing the money over to CUC. This Public Assistance grant is authorized by the Section 406 of the Robert T. Stafford Act and the Presidential disaster declaration of August 6, 2015. $17,295,909 has been obligated in total so far, and more Public Assistance funding is expected to be announced in the coming weeks, as accounting for expenditures resulting from the storm continues. In addition to the money for repair of public infrastructure, $25,011,839 in federal funding was awarded directly to 4,858 households in the Marianas to help with Soudelor recovery. And the Small Business Administration has provided some $11 million in low interest disaster loans to Saipan businesses and more than $13.3 million to individuals.
The Commonwealth Utility Corporation ($649,450) and the CNMI Division of Agriculture ($330,128) now have additional federal funds to help reduce the need to import costly oil to generate electricity in the Northern Marianas. Congress provides the money through the Empowering Insular Communities Program. CUC will use its money to buy and install 1,550 pre-pay meters. The pre-pay system typically lowers energy use—and how much households pay—by up to 20 percent. Some CNMI government offices will also get the pre-pay meters, saving the Commonwealth an estimated $61,566 per month. Agriculture will use its federal funds to install solar generators at five water well pump stations in Kagman. The water produced will supply over 50 farm plots in Kagman and save the CNMI $90,000 per year.
Specific language I insisted on, protecting the Marianas Covenant with the United States, was added to the Puerto Rico debt crisis bill, H.R. 4900, introduced by the House majority last month; and my language has been kept in a new version, H.R. 5278, introduced this Wednesday. Other changes, regarding issues of local self-government, that I filed as potential amendments to a mark-up of H.R. 4900, have also been addressed in the new bill. After ten years in economic recession and many more years of borrowing, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is over $70 billion in debt and has an unfunded pension liability of about $40 billion. Almost 30 percent of the Commonwealth’s annual revenues go to paying off what it owes, while the average state only pays about five percent of revenue for debt service. The situation is not sustainable and Congress has to step in. H.R. 5278 creates an oversight board, appointed by the President, to manage finances in the territory. The board will continue until Puerto Rico has a balanced budget for four years in a row. A mark-up on the new bill in the House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled for next week.
President Obama has named the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas, Esther P. Kia’aina, as his Special Representative for purposes of the consultations required by Section 902 of the Covenant. The appointment of a Presidential Special Representative was requested by Governor Eloy S. Inos in October 2015 and again by Governor Ralph DLG. Torres in January 2016. Both leaders identified federal immigration policy and proposals for increasing military activity in our islands as issues rising to the importance of Section 902 consultation.
H.R.3832 – Stolen Identity Refund Fraud Prevention Act of 2016 (Agreed to by voice vote)
H.Con.Res.88 – Reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances as cornerstones of United States-Taiwan relations, as amended (Agreed to by voice vote)
H.R.4743 – National Cybersecurity Preparedness Consortium Act of 2016 (Passed, 394-3)
H.R.4780 – Department of Homeland Security Strategy for International Programs Act (Agreed to by voice vote)
H.R.4407 – Counterterrorism Advisory Board Act of 2016 (Passed, 389-5)
H.R.4909 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (Passed, 277-147)
H.R.4974 – Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017 (Passed, 295-129)
On the floor
H.R.5077 – Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017
H.R.4167 – Kari’s Law Act of 2015
H.R.3998 – Security Access to Networks in Disaster Act
H.R.3715 – Final Farewell Act of 2016
H.R.5229 – Improving Transition Programs for All Veterans Act
H.R.5286 – VA Construction and Lease Authorization, Health, and Benefits Enhancement Act
On the floor
Committee on Natural Resources Markup on H.R.5278, Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act or PROMESA