Marianas Variety

SAIPAN, CNMI (March 6) – The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Constitution requires lawmakers to deliberate on appropriation measures. The governor may propose spending levels but the Legislature still has to review them. Lawmakers, after all, are the people’s representatives entrusted to guard the public purse.

One of the first acts of this new Legislature, however, was to bend over and tell the governor to dispose of taxpayers’ money as he pleases.

As if this gross dereliction of duty was not enough, the Senate then proceeded to rubber-stamp the governor’s appointees, including one nomination that should have raised the hackles — or at least the eyebrows — of lawmakers who should have a better appreciation of their obligations to the people who put them in office.

We are referring, of course, to the daring nomination and quickie confirmation of a former Tan Holdings lawyer as attorney general — the public official who "shall be responsible for providing legal advice to the governor and executive departments, representing the commonwealth in all legal matters, and prosecuting violations of commonwealth law."

Here are two questions for the more discerning observers of local politics. Would this nomination be confirmed in any other jurisdiction on the U.S. mainland? Would it even be made in the first place?

During the confirmation hearing of the governor’s choice for AG, the proverbial elephant in the room — Matthew Gregory’s previous employment with garment magnate Willie Tan — was pointedly ignored. Asked why, one of the senators said, "It’s not an issue."

But Tan Holdings, the CNMI’s largest garment manufacturer, has been the subject of several labor abuse complaints. It once paid $9 million in restitution to 1,200 workers — the largest fine ever imposed by the U.S. Department of Labor, which sued five Tan garment factories in 1992 for labor and safety violations. Tan Holdings remains the islands’ largest employer of alien workers and has extensive business interests in the CNMI. One of its former executives is now the governor. Now its former lawyer will be the CNMI’s top law enforcement officer.

This is "not an issue"?

We will not question the new AG’s legal competence and abilities. But the senators, before confirming him, should have confronted Gregory’s past ties with Tan Holdings head on and given him a chance to "clear the air."

But no.

The Senate confirmation process has been capricious and arbitrary in the past, and it remains so now when most lawmakers apparently consider themselves as the governor’s yes-men and not as independent-minded representatives of the people. The Senate’s actions on nominations continue to depend on the whims and pleasure of the senators. In 1998, they did not confirm Maya Kara’s nomination as AG, supposedly for a possible conflict of interest — her marriage to a lawyer in private practice. In 2000, they rejected Eric Smith’s nomination as a judge because he is "not local." In 2003, the confirmation of Pamela Brown as AG was held up because she might "follow whatever the governor wants her to write as an opinion and twist the interpretation of the law to suit that."

But now the same senators won’t even pretend to look deeply into the records of the nominees of their new ally, the new governor. Why? For "better times"? Better times for whom?

The Senate should, once again, be reminded why it exists. It is not supposed to "give voice…to the passions of the moment but [to] the enduring and fundamental values that shaped" the creation of a representative democracy. "The institutional design of bicameralism," says a U.S. constitutionalist, "makes this balance possible: what the House votes in its haste, the Senate may reconsider at its leisure. The Senate has no special institutional perspective and no relevant special characteristic but this one." However, "if senators cannot successfully bring to bear on the confirmation process the characteristics that make their institution unique, then there is scarcely an argument available for resting the confirmation power in the Senate…." As another commentator in the U.S. has noted, "any inclination to rubber-stamp a [chief executive’s] nominees is contrary to the very nature of what the Senate is. If the Senate is expected to simply give the [chief executive] whatever…he wants, what is the point of having a confirmation process?"

These are, to be sure, difficult times for the commonwealth and the new administration needs all the help it can get from the other branches of government, particularly from lawmakers. But that doesn’t mean that these same officials should abandon their duties to the people who put them in office. And one of these primary duties is to ensure that checks and balances in government remain in place to prevent possible abuses and to protect the welfare of the public — and not of special interest groups.

March 6, 2006

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