THIS WEEK IN CONGRESS - 2017: The Year in Review

Jan 1, 2018

In this issue- December 29, 2017:




Sworn in. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and my wife Andrea at the ceremonial swearing-in for the 115th Congress, beginning my ninth year working for the people of the Northern Mariana Islands.

CW bill reintroduced

When the 115th Congress convened, I immediately reintroduced my bill to block CW permits for temporary construction workers. In 2016 they used up one-third of available permits—a disaster for many local businesses and public institutions like the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation. H.R. 339 also added to the number of CW permits available in 2017, and raised the fee that goes to train local workers to replace the foreign workforce. The same bill had passed the House in November 2016, but the Senate failed to act.


Rota in the spotlight

At my request and for the first time ever a delegation of Members of Congress visited Rota. Led by the Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the visit took place at the same time that the National Park Service was holding public meetings on whether Rota would be a good place for a National Park. I authorized the Park study in U.S. Public Law 113-291 at the request of Rota officials. A report is due by 2020.

Taking the lead on HELP. With eight years of seniority I became the lead Democrat on the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee, when the 115th Congress organized. I have worked closely and well with Chairman Tim Walberg (R-Michigan), to the right on the dais. One of our greatest challenges: finding ways to save failing pension funds.

A new focus on veterans

In the 115th Congress, I serve on the Education Committee and the Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over insular affairs. But I asked for—and was granted—a waiver to the usual two-committee limit, so I could sit on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Two years ago, I was able to make Marianas' veterans automatically eligible for the Veterans Choice health care program with an amendment to U.S. Public Law 113-564, but I knew there was much more work to do make sure our vets get the services they earned. I immediately held Veterans Resource Fairs on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota to increase vets awareness of what is available—and to hear from vets what they want fixed, now that I am on the Veterans Committee.


Unity leads to Sanctuary listing

Governor Torres and I asked President Obama to list the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument as a potential National Marine Sanctuary in 2016 and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agreed in March. The Governor called the decision “an important step toward realizing the benefits promised to the people of the CNMI during the formation of the Marianas Trench National Monument.” We were joined by Friends of the Marianas Trench and 1,500 residents who signed a petition in favor of sanctuary designation. Also to protect the oceans, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) and I reintroduced a bill banning shark finning, modeled on the ban in CNMI law.


Fallen heroes, first postmaster honored

Public Law 114-305 authorized naming the U.S. Post Office in Chalan Kanoa in honor of the Marianas Fallen Military Heroes and our first postmaster, Segundo T. Sablan. In April, the formal dedication took place.

Palau Compact reintroduced

The heightened threat to the Marianas from North Korea made us all aware of the need for a strong U.S. security posture in the western Pacific. That is why I believed it so important to confirm our relationship with the Republic of Palau by extending the Compact of Free Association through 2024. As in the 114th Congress, I introduced legislation, H.R. 2085, to do just that.

Senate holds hearing on CW bill

The Marianas Economic Expansion Act, H.R. 339, having passed the House, got a hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. In support of my bill Governor Torres testified that “[r]emoving construction workers from the eligible job categories for the CW permit will force employers to go to better suited visa classifications and alleviate the limited CW permits for occupations that are crucial for the overall economy and the needs of the people.” The Strategic Economic Development Council, the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce, and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation also supported the bill.


GAO report confirms need for foreign workers

This month, GAO published the report that I commissioned last year and found a continuing need for foreign workers in the Marianas. The credibility of the Government Accountability Office and the rich trove of data in the report provide a firm basis for the members of Congress considering how to fix the CW permit problem in the short term and ensure the Marianas has enough workers into the future.

Moving forward on Tinian harbor

The U.S. Department of Defense contributed $586,000 to the Commonwealth to use as the complete local match for the on-going study of Tinian harbor needs. I was able to lower this local-share requirement for Army Corps work on Tinian and anywhere else in the Marianas in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014. And I obtained the federal funding for the $3 million Tinian Harbor study in U.S. Public Law 114-113.

Medicare for all

I joined 108 other Members of the House to cosponsor the real solution to our nation’s health care dilemma: Medicare for All. Unlike both Obamacare and the Republican replacements, Medicare for All, H.R. 676, would cover us in the Marianas in the same way as other Americans. It would save the Commonwealth government millions and ensure the hospital does not have to absorb the cost of those who cannot pay for care. And we know it works: 2,219 Marianas residents already enjoy Medicare coverage.


More food for the hungry

The Commonwealth began spending some of the new $32.5 million for food aid that I included in the Agricultural Act of 2014, U.S. Public Law 113-179. More Marianas families are eligible for aid and benefits go up. A new computerized eligibility system is also being installed with the money, making possible a conversion to plastic electronic benefit cards by 2019 to increase security and convenience.

Cracking down on "bad actors"

Governor Torres supported my proposal to block companies that break federal or CNMI law from participating in the CW foreign worker program. With a decreasing number of permits we cannot allow “bad actors” to be competing with legitimate businesses. “I fully support Congressman Kilili’s position,” the Governor said. “Since information about illegal labor and immigration practices by certain companies first came to my attention months ago, my administration has been working with the U.S. Department of Labor to go after these employers who have not followed the laws and regulations.”


New PSS funding formula kicks in

Marianas schools began getting $11.5 million in federal Title IA education funds this year—an increase of $4.1 million over last year—as a result of the new funding formula for island schools that I included in the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, U.S. Public Law 114-95. This was the first year for the new formula. The money will give students and teachers more computers to work with. And PSS plans to provide more school-to-work training opportunities for students with the funds. Increasing federal education funding for the Marianas has always been my number one goal as a Member of Congress. Our future depends on our people. We must be well educated.

Confronting human trafficking. As Chair and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) and I championed the anti-human trafficking bill that we introduced together during debate on the House floor. The House passed our legislation.


CW permit increase enacted

The Senate passed my bill increasing the number of CW permits on August 1, just before Congress’ August recess. Fortunately, my experience in Congress and good relations with leadership on both sides of the aisle allowed for the very unusual passage of the amended bill by the House in a pro forma session on August 11. President Trump quickly signed the measure, making it U.S. Public Law 115-53. And USCIS began implementation days later. The new law responds to the disaster caused by Chinese construction companies using up one-third of this year’s CW permits—forcing out nurses and other high-value workers our economy needs.

PL 115-53 is also a breakthrough. For the first time ever, Congress increased the number of CW permits. And the law contains elements of a long-term solution to our need for foreign workers:

  1. It sets aside permits for specific, high-value occupations.
  2. More money goes to train the 2,400 unemployed, local workers.
  3. Employers must use other visa categories, not just the limited CW permit.

The working group that negotiated the new law—Republicans and Democrats, in both the House and Senate—now turns to a long-term solution with two goals:

  1. Make sure the Marianas has enough labor to keep the economy growing.
  2. Make sure the percentage of US workers keeps going up and the percentage of foreign workers goes down.

Troop store opens. The new, improved, and eagerly-awaited Troop Store opened. I helped start the $2.8 million project by adding the necessary feasibility study to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act. The 5,000 square foot store has more shelf space, more merchandise, a snack station, and other amenities. 4,000 veterans, active duty and reserve service members, and family members are eligible to shop here. Thank you for your service.

Choice providers triple for Marianas vets

Marianas schools began getting $11.5 million in federal Title IA education funds this year—an increase of $4.1 million over last year—as a result of the new funding formula for island schools that I included in the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, U.S. Public Law 114-95. This was the first year for the new formula. The money will give students and teachers more computers to work with. And PSS plans to provide more school-to-work training opportunities for students with the funds. Increasing federal education funding for the Marianas has always been my number one goal as a Member of Congress. Our future depends on our people. We must be well educated.


Building relationships. With a congressional delegation in the People’s Republic of China, one of the Marianas’ top trading partner, I met Wang Yang. A member of the Politburo Standing Committee, he was confirmed as one of China’s four Vice Premiers during the Party Congress in October.

NMI businesses get export aid

Marianas small businesses got help exporting their products and services using $142,000 in federal funds awarded to the CNMI Department of Commerce. The Marianas became eligible for this funding as a result of a statutory change I added to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013. Prior to that change, the Marianas was not eligible to compete for State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) grant funds.

Marianas selected for Wounded Warrior Fellow. The office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives selected the Marianas office to host one of the limited number of Congressional Wounded Warrior Fellows. And we selected Mr. Randy Takai Johnson from many veterans who applied, both from the Marianas and from the U.S. mainland. Randy is a Marine Corps veteran, who served two tours of duty in Iraq as a combat engineer. His work focus with us is other veterans.


Chair agrees to Pacific vets hearing

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Dr. Phil Roe (R-Tennessee) said yes to an oversight hearing in 2018 on the barriers facing veterans living in the U.S. Pacific insular areas. I made the request for the hearing as a member of the Committee, along with Congresswoman Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa) and Congresswoman Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam).

Minimum wage rises to $7.05

The federal minimum wage increased to $7.05 per-hour this month. Next year, it rises to $7.25, the national minimum. Over the last nine years, I have sometimes passed legislation to stretch out the rate of increase to make sure that this rise in wages did not force businesses to lay off employees. It worked. Jobs have held steady. And workers are better off because on average their pay has gone up faster than the cost of goods.


Bill extends E-NAP for 5 years with $42.5M

Looking ahead to reauthorization of the “Farm Bill” in 2018, I introduced legislation that will keep the CNMI on the road to merge with the national food assistance program, SNAP. In the 2014 farm bill I added $32.5 million, which created the E-NAP program now making more Marianas families eligible for help and raising their benefits. My new proposal adds another five years and $42.5 million to continue bringing us to parity with the rest of America.

A step ahead on stopping sexual harassment

This was the month that Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) made her dramatic testimony, describing sexual harassment in Congress. It opened the floodgates to proposals to address the problem. But the Marianas office was a step ahead. Everyone—including the Congressman—is required to take anti-sexual harassment training. And our office handbook sets out specific steps that anyone may and should take, if they are being harassed in the workplace.


Another $6.3 million for water, sewer CIP. When I got to Congress in 2009, I successfully changed the formula for water and sewer funding for the Marianas. But that change has to be renewed every single year. In 2017, we were successful again with another $6.3 million, making a total of $63 million for the Marianas since I started work.

Defense bill has three key provisions

The President signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act into law with three provisions, important to the Marianas, that I worked on:

  • $12.9M more for Tinian divert. The 2018 NDAA added $12.9 million for the Air Force divert airfield project on Tinian. Together with $9 million authorized in the 2017 NDAA, a total of $21.9 million is now available to lease the 142 hectares on the north side of Tinian airport needed for the project. Governor Torres and Tinian leadership agreed to this location a year ago.
  • Palau agreement approved. My bill to extend the Compact, H.R. 2085, passed the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously in April and we worked throughout the year to get the Compact extension included in the NDAA. This success strengthens the U.S. strategic position in the western Pacific.
  • Unlimited H visas safe. After intervention by the congressional office, a technical error in the Senate version of the 2018 NDAA that threatened the Marianas’ unlimited access to foreign workers using H visas was corrected.

Open access to 4-year colleges for Marianas students

As the year closed and reauthorization of the Higher Education Act began to be drafted in the Education and the Workforce Committee, where I am a senior member, I planted a seed I hope Marianas students can harvest in the future. My proposal would allow graduates of Northern Marianas College to continue their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at any public college or university in the United States with the federal government picking up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. Stay tuned.

We fix CW misclassifications

The year ended, as it began, with a focus on the Commonwealth-only Transitional Worker permit program. With the change in Public Law 115-53 to bar use for new construction worker permits, there has been concern that gardeners, CUC plant operators, and other workers are being misclassified as construction workers and denied permits. To date, three constituents have brought this kind of case to the congressional office for help. Working with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, we have successfully resolved two of those cases. The third is pending. We are always ready to help constituents having problems with a federal agency. Altogether in 2017, your congressional office assisted with some 200 separate constituent requests, a backbone of our work for you.




Legislative Highlights


The House is on recess for the District Work Period.