Tom Delay in the South Pacific

House Whip Tom DeLay has returned from Congress’s winter recess burstingwith vim and vigor, promising to press the Republican agenda with all availableenergy. DeLay’s high spirits no doubt result from his use of the recessto fly with his family to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, a chainof islands in the Pacific where the temperatures hover in the eighties yearround. DeLay sloughed off the heavy mantle of legislative responsibilityat a hotel where single rooms cost a minimum of $270 a night and which offersits own private beach and golf course. The latter has special appeal toDeLay, who is a prodigious duffer.

DeLay is one of six members of Congress to have visited the NorthernMarianas during the past eighteen months. More than 70 congressional staffersand dozens of conservative think tankers and journalists have also madetheir way to the elysian islands. The junkets are being coordinated by thelobby shop of Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, which the Commonwealthretained in 1996. The bill for the junkets-already topping $2 million-ispaid for by Northern Marianas taxpayers.

The local government shells out the cash because it hopes to fend offa move in Congress that would subject the islands-a US territory whose residentshave American citizenship-to the federal minimum wage. The current minimumwage in the Commonwealth is around $3 an hour, a rate which has attracteddozens of garment factories, mostly Chinese. The Chinese companies oftenbring along their own workers. CounterPunch has a contract that the Chinesegovernment forces employees to sign, which states that while in the NorthernMarianas they will not “participate in any political or religious activities”and, among other things, “may not engage in smuggling, prostitution,theft, gambling, drugs, fighting, excessive drinking, or watching pornographicvideos. While working overseas, [the employee] may not date or get married.”

Working conditions in the Commonwealth are awful, as reflected in thePhilippine government’s 1995 ban on workers going there, the first timeever that a foreign government barred its citizens from working on whatis technically US soil. Thanks to the Commonwealth’s territorial status,companies operating there can export their goods to the mainland with thecoveted “Made in the USA” label.

No one has been more assiduous in supporting the Northern Marianas governmentthan DeLay. In addition to his own year-end trip to the islands, five ofDeLay’s staffers have traveled to the islands as well. A number of prominentCommonwealth officials have visited with DeLay in Houston, where the congressman,we are told, has taken them on extensive tours of local golf courses.

Business and political leaders from the islands gave DeLay $6,000 duringthe 1995-1996 election cycle, and donated another $21,000 to other Republicans.Bill Jarrell, a former DeLay staffer, now works at Preston, Gates, wherehis clients include the Northern Marianas government and the local garmentindustry.

It’s not surprising, then, that DeLay has so enthusiastically supportedthe Commonwealth government and sweatshop operators. Last June, he and HouseMajority Leader Dick Armey-who also has a former staffer, Dennis Stephensof Preston, Gates, lobbying on behalf of the Commonwealth-wrote then GovernorFroilan Tenorio to promise that Congress had “no intention” ofsubjecting the Northern Marianas to minimum wage laws. Late last year, DeLayalso slipped an amendment into the 1998 Defense Department Appropriationsbill that recommends that the US government authorize a controversial developmentplan on the island of Tinian (whence the Enola Gay departed to drop an atomicbomb on Hiroshima), which is largely controlled by the Pentagon.

It’s not clear who is behind the development plan, but one person likelyto be involved is Willie Tan, son of a Chinese banker and a local powerbrokerwith a finger in almost every pie. During DeLay’s recent visit, Tan-whowas fined $9 million in 1992 by the Labor Department for violations of USlabor and safety law-threw a reception for the congressman.

The House Whip told the assembled guests, mostly local business leaders,that though he had only been on the islands for 24 hours he had already”witnessed the economic success of the CNMI and good will of its people”.He denounced in harsh terms those supporting minimum wage laws in the NorthernMarianas, including such wild-eyed radicals as Bill Clinton and SenatorFrank Murkowski, as pawns of “big labor and the radical left”.DeLay said that raising the minimum wage would “destroy the lives ofthe people here…Stand firm. Resist evil. Remember that all truth and blessingsemanate from our Creator. God Bless you and the people of the Northern Marianas”.CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.