Congress's Beach Boys: Some Islands Will Fly in Anyone to Lobby against Minimum-Wage Regulations

Article excerpt

While most Washingtonians were shivering through a chilly December, a select group of fifteen Congressional staffers flew to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (C.N.M.I.), a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, on the tab of its government. The junketeers, who stayed in a luxury hotel during their arduous "fact-finding" mission, included aides for House majority leader Dick Armey; Representative Don Young, who chairs the committee with oversight of the C.N.M.I.; and deputy whip Barbara Cubin.

The junkets are part of a lavishly funded public relations effort being run by the administration of C.N.M.I.'s governor, Froilan Tenorio (who will leave office this January). In addition to members of Congress and their staff, Tenorio's government has flown squadrons of conservative journalists and think tankers to the C.N.M.I. The goal is to fend off a move in Congress--led by Senators Daniel Akaka and Frank Murkowski and Representative George Miller, and backed by the Clinton Administration--that would make the Marianas subject to U.S. minimum-wage and immigration laws.

The effort seems to be working. Numerous junketeers have come back singing the praises of the C.N.M.I., from the floor of Congress to the pages of newspapers like The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal. The legislation remains bottled up on the Hill, and House leaders vow it will never be voted on.

Located almost 4,000 miles from Hawaii, the C.N.M.I., signed a covenant with the United States that went into effect in 1986. It gives U.S. citizenship and self-government to the C.N.M.I.'s people but allows the Marianas' government, unlike all other U.S. territories, to set a local minimum wage. Only C.N.M.I. and American Samoa control their own immigration policy.

This situation has been a boon for local business, especially the $500-million-a-year garment industry. It relies overwhelmingly on foreign workers, mostly Chinese and Filipino, who are paid about $3 per hour. Employees are forced to work long hours 4nd many are housed in run-down industrial barracks. And while "leading members of the CNMI government assert that the Commonwealth's immigration and minimum wage laws are responsible for its economic progress," as Ai F51U a 1997 report from Democratic staffers at the House Resources Committee concludes, "upon closer examination, it is evident that the economic growth of the CNMI is largely due to federal grants totaling hundreds of millions of dollars and the financial success of a few employers who have relied upon the recruitment and sweat of a large, cheap, foreign labor force."

The C.N.M.I.'s junket campaign is being coordinated by the D.C. lobby shop of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, which Tenorio's government retained last year and has since paid $1.9 million. Between April 1996 and December 1997, Preston Gates arranged for six House members to visit the C.N.M.I. Representatives Ralph Hall, Brian Bilbray and John Duncan brought their wives along, while Representative Dana Rohrabacher was accompanied by his fiancee.

More than seventy Congressional staffers or party officials, mostly Republicans, have also jetted to the Marianas at the expense of the C.N.M.I government. Five aides from Armey's office have made the journey to the Pacific, as have employees of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House majority whip TomDeLay.

Conservative reporters and think tankers are also flocking to the Marianas. Three editorial employees of The Washington Times have made the expenses-paid pilgrimage. So, too, have journalists with publications such as The Public Interest and The National Interest, as well as representatives from the Cato Institute, the Institute for Justice, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Citizens Against Government Waste and a host of other organizations.

Preston Gates arranges for the travelers to stay at the Hyatt Regency on the main island of Saipan, where prices for a single room range from $240 to $370 and which, according to its brochure, "lies on 14 acres of lush, tropical gardens, lagoons and magnificent micro-beach. …