Vice President Mike Pence’s recent stopover in Guam was a missed opportunity to help the CNMI recover from Super Typhoon Yutu. Returning from Asia on Nov. 18, the vice president’s plane made a scheduled landing at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam to refuel. The vice president should have used that time to fly to Saipan and Tinian to visit those struggling to rebuild in Yutu’s aftermath. Instead, the vice president continued on to Washington, D.C., having failed to spotlight the suffering still going on in the CNMI. The citizens of the CNMI deserve better.
High-level visits to disaster areas are important gestures. Last year, President Trump visited Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and Pence visited the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of hurricanes Maria and Irma. Those visits not only symbolized a commitment to stand with the people of those storm-devastated islands, they also garnered the attention of nongovernmental organizations and others in a position to aid in recovery efforts.
Regrettably, Yutu’s impact has been largely overlooked in the mainland press. Indeed, veteran CNN, Fox News, and NBC News anchor Greta Van Susteren described the CNMI’s plight following Yutu as “grossly underreported.” A visit from the vice president, not to mention the president, could have shone a spotlight on the devastation wrought by Yutu, thereby generating headlines and broader awareness. But sadly, the White House has remained mostly silent while the people of the CNMI have struggled to rebuild their storm-ravaged homes and businesses. While it’s true that the president declared emergencies following Yutu and, earlier this fall, Typhoon Mangkhut, these minimal gestures fall far short of what he could—and should—have done to assist the CNMI. Congressional leaders have likewise failed to adequately attend to the CNMI’s needs.
Compounding the CNMI’s woes is the Commonwealth’s systematic exclusion from the lawmaking process. The CNMI’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), can advocate for the Commonwealth’s interests. But Congress otherwise silences him when it comes to national affairs. That injustice is rooted in America’s century-old dalliance with colonialism. By denying the people of America’s insular territories full representation, Congress relegates those citizens living outside the 50 states to second-class status—a practice that is both morally bankrupt and constitutionally dubious.
Democratic legitimacy was fundamentally important to the Constitution’s framers, so they made congressional representation the cornerstone of our nation’s federal government. Sadly, our nation’s leaders failed to adhere to that principle when it came to territorial acquisition. While it’s true that self-determination has always been at the heart of the transition from territorial status to statehood, Congress has erected indefensible barriers to entry for so-called “unincorporated territories” like the CNMI, which are not on a pathway to statehood. And that exclusion affects the lives of each and every citizen living in the Commonwealth.
It’s difficult to imagine so little attention being paid to Saipan and Tinian if the CNMI had full representation in Congress. Indeed, a lawmaker’s ability to leverage his or her vote in the interests of his or her constituents is vital to recovery efforts in states with a full complement of senators and representatives. The silence from the White House and the CNMI’s congressional caretakers speaks volumes about the stature of the CNMI in the national debate. Fortunately, it’s not too late to make amends for that injustice.
Colonialism is wrong. And if there ever was a time when it served the interests of America’s insular territories, that time is long gone. It’s time for the people of the CNMI to enjoy the same rights and protections as citizens in the 50 states. In the meantime, paying due attention to the CNMI’s recovery efforts would be a good place to start.
Scott A. Olson is a writer, a former congressional staffer, and a political partner of Truman National Security Project. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from George Washington University and a law degree from the University of Oregon School of Law. Follow him on Twitter at @SOlsonOR. Views expressed are his own.