Washington D.C. – CNMI Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan quizzed administration witnesses on a proposed 15-year renewal of the Palau Compact of Free Association with the United States.
During the Wednesday hearing in Washington, Sablan called for a greater sense of urgency on approval of the overdue agreement and a sense of perspective with respect to the cost of the renewal.
“”We are nickel and dimeing Palau,” Sablan said of the reluctance to find acceptable funding to continue the Compact with Palau for another 15 years. The proposed agreement cuts funding from the first 15-year total by 62 percent.
Sablan compared the situation to a bank “that spends a fortune to bring in new customers. Then, once they capture the customer, they charge a $5 monthly fee and lose that customer.”
The hearing took place before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. As Ranking Member of the Natural Resources subcommittee with responsibility for insular affairs, Sablan was invited to sit at the dais to question the witnesses from the State, Defense, and Interior Departments, and from the Government Accountability Office.
Compact financial assistance for Palau was scheduled to be renewed beginning with fiscal year 2011. But negotiations on the agreement were not finished in time. Further delay has resulted from the requirement to find off setting savings in the federal budget to pay for the cost of the Palau agreement.
The administration has proposed three offsets that the bipartisan leaders of the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have rejected. All three spending cuts come from the Interior Department’s budget: abandoned mine land payments, fees on non-producing leases, and net revenue receipt sharing on minerals.
In addition to wanting offsets that are more acceptable to Congress, Sablan also expressed concern that the Interior Department, which has responsibility for insular affairs including assistance to the Northern Marianas, is already under intense budgetary pressure.
Subcommittee Chairman Donald Manzullo (R-Illinois), also, expressed concern that the State Department and the Department of Defense were not picking up some of the responsibility for the cost of the Palau agreement.
“We’re going to mark this up next year,” Manzullo promised. “And I’m going to put in the mark-up that this money comes from the three departments, State, Defense, and Interior.
“We want to get this thing done. It’s too critical; it’s too important; it’s too strategic for us to have all this work done and then come down to these offsets that come out of [the Interior] Department that doesn’t have that much to work with in the first place.”
Much of the discussion at the hearing centered on the strategic importance of the U.S. relationship with Palau. Brigadier General Richard Simcock, Principal Director of South and Southeast Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Asian/Pacific Security Affairs, displayed a map of the western Pacific outlining two lines of islands that form a perimeter off the coast of China. The second, outermost chain includes Palau and the Marianas. Simcock identified the highlighted map as a product of a Chinese think tank.
“I think their position is that we have a strong position in the Pacific,” Simcock advised. “And it’s a strong position that we need to maintain.”
In his final round of questioning and closing remarks Sablan reminded the Subcommittee again that it would be short-sighted to scrap the long-standing relationship with Palau because of present day budgetary constraints.
“They are a very patient people,” Sablan said. “But patience has its limits.
“We’ve got to find those offsets. Only Palau can give us that kind of a bargain. Only the good people of Palau.”