Two crucial legislation on labor and business reforms passed recently by the House of Representatives have drawn support by some members of the U.S. Congress, boding well for the efforts to spur the local economy, according to Speaker Benigno R. Fitial.
He said U.S. House Resources Committee Chair Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) is "very pleased" with the passage of the twin measures "because he believes that we are doing the right thing."
House Bill 12-39 or the Omnibus Labor and Business Reform Act sponsored by Mr. Fitial was presented by the House delegation visiting Washington D.C. last week, along with the other measure also offered by the speaker, the CNMI Fair Labor Standards Act.
The first bill, which passed the lower house last month and is now pending with the Senate, seeks to repeal existing laws deemed restrictive to doing business in the Commonwealth, including the hiring moratorium on foreign workers imposed by the Tenorio administration since 1998.
The other legislation, which is under review in the House, proposes to reform local labor laws by replacing them with a comprehensive measure patterned after the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, excluding the minimum wage provisions.
Mr. Fitial said he left copies of the legislation to members of Congress whom they met during their week-long visit in the nation’s capital.
"Mr. Young is very pleased that we did not lift the ban on garment workers [under the Omnibus legislation]," he told reporters in an interview last Friday.
The House Resources Committee has jurisdiction over insular areas, including the Northern Marianas, and is responsible for endorsing U.S. legislation that will affect the islands.
Before leaving for D.C. on April 6, the CNMI delegation had set as one of their agenda the discussion of the two bills with members of Congress in an effort to give them a clearer picture of the island’s conditions.
The group wrapped up their visit Thursday (Washington time) by meeting with several ranking House Republican members, including Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Reps. Bob Schaffer (R-CO) and John Doolittle (R-CA). They also met with Rep. Ralph Hall (D-TX).
Mr. Fitial described the trip a success because they were able to meet with as many U.S. lawmakers as possible and to convert those who are pushing for federal takeover of the Commonwealth’s immigration, minimum wage and customs -- control that island leaders want to maintain in order to develop the economy.
Mr. Young, whose committee is currently reviewing S. 1052 which is the bill that will extend federal immigration laws to the CNMI, had agreed to defer action on the legislation "as long as he could," said Mr. Fitial.
"They truly believe that we are doing the right thing. We’re unlike other territories that depend on federal doleouts," he explained. "I am now confident that we can push back federal takeover legislation provided we maintain constant presence and strong lobbying in Washington D.C."
During meetings with members and key staff in Congress, the delegation said they were told to keep track of legislation affecting the CNMI in the absence of a delegate in the Capitol Hill.
They also drew sympathy from some lawmakers over the heavy handed treatment by federal agencies towards states and territories, noting the failure by the CNMI to get approval from U.S. Fish and Wildlife on the use of Marpi as landfill site.
But over all, the 10-man House delegation left the U.S. capital with fresh ideas that can be applied in the Commonwealth, and thus provide ways to further improve the island’s economic and social conditions.
Rep. Brigida Ichihara said it was an "eye opener," while Rep. Malua T. Peter considered it a success despite the fact that they had to keep pace with a very tight schedule.
For Mr. Fitial, the trip offered him two strong impressions -- one, that the island can count on a lot of friends in Congress; and two, that CNMI must act now to maintain the control granted under the Covenant.
"We can’t rely on Congress alone. We must mount a serious defense and we must do it very soon," he said.
The delegation is expected to return to Saipan later this week after holding talks with CNMI students in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and California.
A group, including Mr. Fitial, Floor Leader Oscar M. Babauta, and Reps. Bobby Guerrero and Rosiky Camacho, flew to Houston over the weekend to meet with officials of Continental Airlines as part of their efforts to improve air service to the CNMI.
They appealed to the carrier, whose subsidiary Continental Micronesia is the largest in the region, to increase flight frequencies between Saipan and Guam so that tourists and passengers won’t have to wait long hours at A.B. Won Pat International Airport for their connecting flights.
"We have decided to talk to Continental officials in Houston if we can try to bring back the relationship we used to have," said Mr. Fitial. "We believe that our relationship can be reestablished so that a better cooperation can be attained."
Ties between the CNMI and Continental have soured in recent years following the carrier’s decision to stop its direct flights from key Asian cities without consulting local officials who maintained such a move has impacted on the tourism industry.