WASHINGTON, D.C.—“Third time’s the charm,” advised Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), as the bill conveying the submerged lands around the 14 Northern Mariana Islands to the Commonwealth passed the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday afternoon. Approval was without any dissent, as it has been twice before—first in the 111th Congress in 2009 and then again in the 112th Congress in 2011. Both times, however, the Northern Marianas territorial sea bill died in the U.S. Senate.
“I am cautiously optimistic that Mr. Bishop is right,” said Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP). “The third time—in the 113th Congress—we will be successful getting the bill enacted and on the President’s desk for signature.”
In fact, the road to enactment began even before Sablan was elected to represent the people of the Northern Marianas in Congress, as he acknowledged in his manager’s statement yesterday.
In 2005 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the submerged lands around the islands belonged not to the Commonwealth but to the federal government. “Then-congressman, now Arizona senator, Jeff Flake, introduced a bill conveying these lands shortly after the Ninth Circuit ruling,” Sablan explained during the House proceedings. “And new Mexico senator, Pete Domenici, introduced a companion to the Flake measure.”
But neither the House nor the Senate voted on a conveyance bill until Sablan arrived.
Now eight years after that court ruling, Sablan has refused to give up. He introduced his own bill, H.R. 573, on Feb. 6 and has moved it quickly through the committee referral process and onto the House floor for yesterday’s vote.
At the same time, he prevailed on the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.
“The Northern Marianas is the only U.S. coastal jurisdiction that does not have ownership of the submerged lands off its coasts,” Sablan told the House yesterday.
“The bill will simply provide parity—the ownership and responsibility for surrounding lands and waters that every other coastal area of our nation enjoys.” (Office of the Delegate)