Washington, D.C. – Today, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) urged her colleagues to pass a bill (S. 2610) that would approve the 2010 agreement between the United States and the Republic of Palau. The agreement would update and extend provisions of the compact that governs relations between the two nations. Approval of the agreement is a national security priority, given Palau’s importance as one of our nation’s strongest allies in the Western Pacific – a region in the Asia-Pacific with increasing international tensions.
“Despite this national security imperative and broad bipartisan support, this committee has been unable to move the bill forward for five years because of a failure to find a viable offset for the mandatory cost of the agreement – $149 million over eight years,” Sen. Cantwell said. “I hope this year we will do better.”
During the hearing, the committee also considered the Omnibus Territories Act of 2015 (S. 2360) that would assist with the resettlement of Marshall Islanders, allow foreign air carriers to provide service in America Samoa and allow citizens of the Pacific Islands, who legally live in the United States, to obtain state identity documents.
The committee heard from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who completed reports on U.S. assistance to Palau, on compact assistance provided to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and on the impact that Freely Associated States’ citizens have on U.S. communities when they migrate under the terms of their respective compacts.
Previously, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was known as the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and had jurisdiction over U.S. affiliated islands. Today, the scope of the committee’s jurisdiction is narrower but still includes five territories: American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the freely associated states of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. Each of these island governments has a separate and unique relationship with the United States.
Read Sen. Cantwell’s full statement below:
“Thank you, Chairman Gardner, for chairing the hearing and for the important subject this morning.
“As many of my colleagues know, this committee was once named the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, which had jurisdiction for numerous U.S. - affiliated islands including Hawaii and the Philippines. Today, the scope of the committee’s jurisdiction is narrower, but still includes the five territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands; and U.S. assistance to the freely associated states of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
“Each of these island governments has a separate and unique relationship with the United States that requires oversight and — from time-to-time — changes in federal law. Today, the committee will consider two bills and three Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports regarding the insular areas.
“Before I get to these bills I’d like to say a word about a territorial topic that is not on today’s agenda and that is Puerto Rico. For several months, bills have been introduced and hearings have been held on the financial crisis in our largest territory — a financial crisis that is quickly becoming a humanitarian crisis for 3.5 million U.S. citizens. The Senate has just gotten back from a two-week recess, but we have to get serious about passing legislation to give Puerto Ricans the tools they need to restructure their debt and begin to rebuild their economy.
“Turning back to today’s agenda, the first bill is S. 2360, the Omnibus Territories Act of 2015. It would make three changes to federal law requested by the island governments. First, allow use of the Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund by the people of Bikini to resettle outside of the Marshall Islands. Second, allow foreign air carriers to provide service in American Samoa between the islands of Tutuila and the Manu’a Islands.
“Third, make a technical correction to the REAL ID Act by replacing the reference to the ‘Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands’ with the names of the three successor states. This would allow their citizens who legally reside in the United States to get state identity documents.
“The second bill on the agenda is S. 2610. It would approve the 2010 agreement between the U.S. and the Republic of Palau to update and extend provisions of the Compact of Free Association that governs relations between our nations.
“This bill is a national security priority because Palau is strategically located in the Western Pacific — a region of growing international tensions. In its letter of transmittal of this legislation, the administration concludes ‘approving (this)... agreement is important to the national security of the United States, stability in the Western Pacific region, our bilateral relationship with Palau and to the United States' broader strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.’
“Palau is arguably among the United States’ closest allies.
“Nevertheless, despite this national security imperative and broad bipartisan support, the committee has been unable to move the bill forward for five years because of a failure to find a viable offset for the mandatory cost of the agreement — $149 million over eight years. I hope this is the year we will do better.
“I’m looking forward to hearing more about these bills from the Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia’aina. I hope people will remember her for having worked with our former colleague, Senator Danny Akaka, who is remembered as a champion of the islands and as a leader on island policy.
“I also welcome Dr. David Gootnik, director of international affairs and trade at the Government Accountability Office. I’d like to thank Dr. Gootnik and his team for their work over many years evaluating federal programs in the insular areas.
“Financial assistance under the three Compacts of Free Association totals nearly $200 million a year and is vital to providing basic services in the freely associated states. In addition, $30 million a year is provided to Guam, Hawaii and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to help mitigate the impact of Compact migrants on community programs and services where they resettle.
“As a part of the committee’s oversight responsibilities for these programs, GAO has completed several reports that we will hear about this morning.
“So Mr. Chairman, I look forward to hearing more on these issues and from the administration for their assistance in making sure we get the these legislative issues resolved this year.“Thank you.”