Feb. 28, 2007 — On Tuesday, for the first time in a dozen years, a territorial delegate to Congress chaired a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee meeting.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen presided over the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs hearing on the fiscal year 2008 budget request for the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs.
Christensen said Wednesday that while she's been in the chairman's chair before when the chairman had to leave for some reason, presiding over the meeting Tuesday was exciting.
"To walk in and sit there and that's my chair is quite a different story," she said.
She said that while former Delegate Ron de Lugo chaired a similar subcommittee, it was disbanded in 1997 because the would-be chairman was not especially sympathetic to territorial and Native American issues.
Christensen said it's particularly important to have the subcommittee to give full weight to territorial issues. She said that while some were heard in the full committee, there were many other issues for the members to consider so territorial issues often didn't get the attention they deserved.
She heard testimony from the Gov. Togiola Tulafono of American Samoa and Guam Gov. Felix Perez Camacho as well as David Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of the Interior Department with responsibility for insular affairs. They spoke on issues pertaining to the budget and economic conditions on the islands.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. did not attend because of a scheduling conflict (See Governor Tells House Subcommittee Federal Changes Are Needed). Gov. Benigno R. Fitial of the Northern Marianas also did not attend because a Senate committee was visiting the territory. Both deJongh and Fitial submitted written statements.
Christensen said in a news release issued Tuesday that she hopes to determine whether the Office of Insular Affairs gets enough funding to allow it to address the unique and important challenges faced by territorial residents.
Christensen, Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico (whose post is similar to that of the delegate), and Delegate Madeline Bordallo of Guam questioned the governors and Cohen.
Christensen said she asked Cohen about V.I. issues, such as assistance for small business development, funding assistance to meet court-ordered mandates that strain insular budgets and support for a territorial chief financial officer.
According to the press release, Cohen said that Insular Affairs was actively promoting small business development and would look at the possibility of assisting the territories in meeting their court-ordered mandates. He said that in light of the financial situation in the territories, he could support a chief financial officer if there was no opposition from the territorial governor.
Cohen also said that his office's top two priorities for the insular areas are to promote private-sector economic development and to improve accountability for the federal financial assistance provided to the insular areas.
He said that the Office of Insular Affairs budget continues to focus on increasing self-sufficiency of insular areas through programs such as the technical assistance program that provides funding for critical infrastructure, such as wastewater systems, hospitals and schools. He said his office has worked to help the territories identify their competitive advantages and identify industries that have the most potential for success.
Christensen said in the news release that both Fortuno and Bordallo noted that the reinstitution of the subcommittee was an historic and important moment for all the territories since it signals a greater focus on federal policy and how it affects the territories.
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