What should be the primary role of the Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress and how can the Delegate be more effective in playing that role?
The primary role of the Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress is to represent the territory's interest on the federal level, to include the Congress, the White House and the various departments and agencies that it administrates.
As an effective Delegate, I represent the territory's interests, and individual constituent needs. I serve as a liaison between local and federal government, and serve on Committees and other Congressional groups to further national policies that have a local nexus or local issues that resonate nationally.
Because I have a thorough knowledge of the people of the Virgin Islands and their needs and aspirations, I have the ability and fortitude to express those needs on the federal level. I have been able to translate those needs into language that can be understood in Washington and represent the legitimate requests by the Virgin Islands public for funding and technical assistance for various programs and projects.
The Delegate to Congress, as do other Congressional Representatives divide their time between their districts and Washington, D.C. The Congressional Calendar is structured to accommodate this as Friday to Monday is often reserved for constituent work in the district and Tuesday to Thursday for work in Washington. There are also two week periods scheduled around holidays and the month of August which are also reserved for constituent work and for travel to jurisdictions within and without the United States in concert with their committee and caucus duties.
I have used my three terms and the opportunities afforded by seniority to enhance that effectiveness in a variety of ways. In my third term as Delegate to Congress, I have accepted speaking engagements, around the country because it helps to promote the Virgin Islands, increase my influence and sometimes provide donations for local community organizations.
As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, I have been able to use the invaluable contacts that I have gained across the country to benefit the Virgin Islands, bringing leadership, attention and resources for many in our community.
It is important for the Delegate to Congress to have national party affiliation. Congress is organized based on the two national political parties and it is difficult at best to get anything done without the help from colleagues with more seniority and influence and who sit on important committees. If the Democrats take back the House, I can be even more effective as a Subcommittee chair, and with a vote on the House floor.
The work of the Delegate to Congress is to form good working relationships with other Members on both sides of the aisle. I have accomplished this by supporting causes important to other Members in the Committees where I have a vote and participate on issues important to other Members and their districts.
I will be even more effective as Delegate to Congress in a fourth term, because with experience and seniority, I will have the access that a freshman would never have – especially a freshman without party affiliation.
How do you believe the Virgin Islands is perceived generally in Congress, and how do you believe that image should be changed, if at all? How will you seek to effect any such change of image that you believe would better serve the territory?
The perception of the Virgin Islands in the Congress is based largely on the personality and effectiveness of the person who holds the office of Delegate to Congress. For many Members of Congress, knowledge of the territory and its needs is limited to what they are exposed to by the Delegate.
Because I am active and vocal on numerous issues and interact with other Members on Committees, Caucuses, Working Groups on causes crucial to the territory and the nation, the perception of the Virgin Islands is good. I have always worked to give a true picture of the Virgin Islands needs as well as its assets to Members of Congress. I have encouraged Members on both sides of the aisle to dialogue with Virgin Islanders on their issues when they visit the islands and meet with local groups when they visit Washington.
In my three terms, my office has been an integral part of this country with many issues, concerns and needs as well as aspirations in common with our counterparts across the nation.
I will continue to pursue efforts to make the Virgin Islands more efficient and accountable. I believe that the Virgin Islands community is capable of achieving this, once the proper structures are put in place. One such structure is the development of a constitution, a statement of who we are, who we want to be in the future, and how we deem it best to get there.
The image of the territory in the Congress can first be changed through the adoption of our own constitution. Many have voiced impatience with our regular requests for amendments to the Organic Act, and there are many issues raised here at home such as the size and structure of our Legislature, and more local government that are best addressed in the comprehensive way that a Constitution allows us to do. Delegate Christensen will continue to pursue efforts to make the Virgin Islands more efficient and accountable. It is important that we make this statement of who we are, who we want to be in the future and how we deem it best to get there.
I will also continue the efforts, which have already been undertaken with assistance from my office, for better accountability and stewardship of federal funds. My support was crucial in the development of the alternate methods which allowed the Virgin Islands government to bring audits up to date, ensuring that federal funds continue to come to the territory, while measures were put in place. I will continue to advocate and work with our administration to have a coordinated, comprehensive, efficient and transparent financial management system in place. It is important to Congress that funds appropriated from the territory are spent on a timely basis, and reach those for whom they are intended.
I advocate a planned and comprehensive approach to all the problems before us. We can get federal assistance to do this. Whether it be education, sustainable economic development or managing our precious natural resources, a clear plan and strategy coming from the joint efforts of the governor, administration, legislature and my office, will produce the best response from the Congress.
The increasing federal deficit, funding for homeland security and this country's expanding war against terrorism will make federal funds more limited than they were in the past. We must position ourselves in the most optimal way to get the assistance we need. I will continue to be a leader in this effort.
For the seeable future, what do you believe the dynamics of the relationship between the federal government and the territory will be; and in the best interests of the Virgin Islands, what do you believe they should be?
Based on the expressed preference of the people of the Virgin Islands, for the seeable future, the Virgin Islands will remain a part of the United States and so will continue to have the relationship of a small off-shore territory to its larger patron. At this stage of its political development of barely 50 years (1954 Organic Act), the Virgin Islands still struggles to find the right fit of what our local governance should look like, while we continue to improve our stewardship of our financial and natural resources and seek more self governance and maturity in our relationship to the federal government. The federal government continues to work with small communities such as ours across the country to meet our needs.
How this relationship would best be effectuated is partially addressed in response to previous questions. There are also some issues that we would do well to have a broader dialogue on such as Customs, the application of the tax code, possible &
quot;cover-overs", and our position vis a vis trade agreements being negotiated, once we have a clear picture of the pros and cons of current or proposed initiatives.
With my fellow delegates, I continue to press for the re-activation of the Territorial Interagency Working Group, which would bring all federal agencies together in a coordinated approach to our issues. This approach worked well for Puerto Rico over the years, and would give us an optimal chance for success in our combined efforts. I would also like to see more Virgin Islanders in policymaking positions within the Federal government, and am proud of the work of those already so situated.
What are the three most important things you hope to accomplish as Delegate in the next two years and what leads you to believe that you will be able to accomplish them?
As Delegate to Congress, I hope to address the following areas during the next two years:
1. Lifting the Medicaid Cap
I have built a good foundation over the past six years of educating other Members of Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services on the need to provide more assistance for the medically uninsured in the territory. This administration has employed a policy that is adverse to Medicaid expansion, and instead has been reducing the Medicaid funding to states. Many are cutting back on Medicaid enrollees. This makes the work for this more difficult, but I am best positioned to get it done.
In my role as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, I have gained the access and the influence the momentum we have established on this important issue. I am the member of the party which enacted Medicaid, and which recognizes the importance of this safety net to our goal of increasing access to health care for everyone in this country. I have always sought membership on the House Commerce Committee which authorizes Medicaid spending and policies. Should the Democrats take back the House, my seniority in that body, would give me an opportunity to sit on this Committee which is critical to this effort. This is a position that is difficult for a Delegate to achieve. No freshman or non-party affiliated Delegate would have a chance. My position as a health care leader gives me the best chance.
In the past six years, I have been able to get support for lifting the cap from national organizations. Working with my fellow Delegates we have set an important precedent, since for the first time, we have been able to provide Medicaid funding available to states, outside of the cap. I have also been successful in raising the awareness of both the Department of Interior and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services who are now more sensitized to the negative impact of the cap on our ability to provide quality health care to our residents. They have begun and remain committed to working with me to find ways to address this inequity, and to help the territory secure other funding assistance in the interim.
As one of the leaders of a growing national movement for universal health care coverage within and outside of the Congress, I have made lifting our cap an integral part of that effort. As the last industrialized nation in the world, which does not provide health care for all of its citizens, this is an important movement.
2. Improving Education in the Territory
Over the past six years, many unresolved problems in the local management of education funds and changing administrations both on the local and federal level, my focus has been working with the local administration and Department of Education to maintain our stream of federal funding for education through facilitating and supporting discussions between them and the U.S. Department of Education. Now that audits have been completed and responded to, and a compliance agreement is now in place, the groundwork has firmly been put in place to improve the educational environment in the Virgin Islands, improve test scores and performance of our students, and support re-accreditation. I have an established working relationship with officials in the USDOE, the White House, and the leadership of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, as well as with the Secretary himself, to increase the effectiveness of my stewardship in this important area.
I have already been a part of setting some important precedents in education funding for the Virgin Islands and other territories. With Delegate Underwood of Guam, I worked to include a new position in the Leave No Child Behind Act for a Coordinator for Territorial Affairs and for $5 million in competitive grants to help develop programs, which would help improve test scores.
Now is an opportune moment to revive our efforts at comprehensive planning for the education and full development of our children and young people. Working in cooperation with the Department, Governor and the Legislature, I will focus on increased community wide planning, while we continue to pursue greater accountability. Early in the year, it will be important to establish a coordinated legislative agenda to address the educational needs of the Virgin islands and to continue that collaboration until our goals are achieved.
Because the problems and the needs of all of the Territories are similar, the best approach may be an omnibus education bill introduced and shepherded through the process with my fellow territorial delegates, but in the end, many of the provisions would likely be attached to another appropriate piece of legislation.
Education is truly a life long process, so for me it begins with ensuring funding increases for Health Start and Head Start on the federal level so that our needs would be better met. It includes full support for after school programs such as Beacon Schools and enhancing the offerings of our local libraries.
I would not rule out private foundation funds to support the work of many of our non-profit agencies who also play an important role, and am already working on a foundation meeting in the Virgin Islands for early 2003.
It is clear that without a safe and conducive environment learning is impeded, and so I will continue to work with my Congressional colleagues to increase school construction funding. In the interim, I have and will continue to avail our local Departmental staff of funding possibilities that are available now.
We cannot have good schools without support for the work that teachers are called upon to do. I am proud to have authored a piece of legislation which would increase loan forgiveness for teachers in schools with a high percentage of children living in poverty. This bill was also introduced by one of my Republican counterparts. It if isn't passed this year, we would have a good chance of enacting it in the next Congress. I will continue to improve circumstances for teachers and school personnel, because we need to attract and retain good teachers and staff.
Finally, until accreditation can be achieved, I will seek out every possibility to enhance our young people's ability to get into good colleges and universities.
Another effort planned for early next year is a workshop on the Congressional Award program which has already been introduced to several community groups. This award has already been achieved by one applicant and can be achieved by even more of the bright young people of the Virgin Islands.
Finally, I would work with my Democratic colleagues in the House to make sure that the Leave No Child Act is fully funded.
3. Seeking the increase of federal dollars to the territory for infrastructure development by lifting the rum cap and aggressively pursuing additional infrastructure dollars.
We have made steady progress in this area over the last six years. We have moved incrementally from $10.50 to $13.25 and we hope in the next two years to move to the full $13.50 per proof gallon. Since Puerto Rico is on the same track as we are with this issue, I will continue to work with the Resident Commissioner to achieve this. This is important because the rum revenues are used specifically to address the
infrastructure needs of the territory. I believe that with the kind of planning, and improved government efficiency, I referred to earlier we can retrieve some of the funds lost in past years to apply to our more critical infrastructure needs.
Because of our sustained campaign to make others aware of how important these funds are to the development of our economy, I am poised to increase the amounts we have already been able to get from rum revenues and from other sources for roads and highways, port development, school and health facility construction, sewage system repair and other pressing needs. During the past six years we have established a legislative record and received funding in all these areas. Once again, seniority, the respect that I have gained, the relationships I have already established will make it possible to continue our campaign to increase upon the amounts received to meet our demonstrated need.
Improving our homeland security and public safety is a part of improving important community infrastructure. The current focus on Homeland Security gives us an unprecedented opportunity to improve the capabilities of the police and fire service. I have already been able to substantially increase funding to police and fire over the past several years and have begun the process to increase the capabilities of Customs and INS and our air and marine services. I have already begun to sensitize my colleagues and the Bush administration on the strengths and vulnerabilities of our territory and to make them realize that even though we are small islands, we form a vital part of the U.S. border. This process was advanced with this summer's visit of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources of the Committee on Government Reform, under the leadership of Chairman Mark Souder to St. Croix to meet with local and regional law enforcement to learn first hand, about our specific needs.
CHRISTENSEN RESPONDS TO SOURCE FORUM
What should be the primary role of the Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress and how can the Delegate be more effective in playing that role?
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