Congressman Gregorio Kilili Sablan's Speech to the Rotary Club

October 12, 2010

Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s Rotary Club Speech

Is it the truth?

That’s the first question every Rotarian asks. And it’s a good place to start today answering the charge you heard last week that I don’t work as part of “the team.” You heard that what the Northern Marianas needs is “one voice” – the Governor’s – and a Delegate who will agree with the Governor on every issue.

So here’s the truth about who is cooperating with whom: In two years I have never come home to the Commonwealth and failed to visit the Governor and the Lt. Governor.

I think it is vitally important that we consult.

Yet in those two years the Governor has visited the congressional office in Washington once. The day I took the oath of office he dropped by – for an hour. He didn’t even bother to attend the swearing in at the Capitol – of the very first Northern Marianas Delegate to the US Congress. He had “a meeting to go to,” he said.

I’m not telling you this because I was personally offended. I’m saying this because everyone in the Marianas should be offended that our Governor has so little respect for the office that represents the people in our national government.

But the Governor’s idea of team play doesn’t end there. He has also ordered all government officials who come to Washington not to go to their congressional office. They will be fired if they do. That’s the truth.

Of course, they do come in – because they want to see their office; it’s something we can all be proud of.

But when they come in, they ask not to have their picture taken. They know, if the Governor sees the photograph, they will lose their job.

They’re even afraid to write to their Congressman. Just before the shutdown a government employee e-mailed me about a federal issue. He wrote: “Please consider this communicationas from an anonymous concern resident due politics that could affect my job.” And it ends: “Once again, please don’t let anybody know that I requested for your assistance.”

They come to the office and ask not to be photographed. They e-mail me and ask not to be exposed. They call and say don’t share my name – even with your staff. People are living in a fear.

And the Covenant Party candidate has the temerity to say that I am standing in the way of the team.

Is it the truth? You be the judge.

What is the second Rotarian test?

Is it fair to all concerned?

You may know that one of the first things I accomplished in Washington was to get more food stamp money. The Recovery Act increased food stamp benefits by 14%. But the CNMI was left out because we’re not part of the national program. We operate under a memorandum of agreement with the US Department of Agriculture.

I spotted the problem. I contacted Secretary Tom Vilsack. And by June last year he had reprogrammed $1.5 million, so people here got the 14% benefit increase. Secretary Vilsack also agreed to maintain that increase going forward, so we got $2 million extra in FY10 -- $12 million in total.

That was good. But it wasn’t fair to all concerned.

Because on Rota and Tinian food costs more than on Saipan. Yet food stamp benefits are the same on all islands.

I raised the fairness issue in a letter last November to the Governor. Because the MOU says he can ask to renegotiate the benefit amount at any time. The Governor never answered my letter.

I raised the fairness issue for Rota and Tinian in a second letter at the beginning of this year. Again, no answer.

By the way, I wasn’t operating in the dark. I met with the Agriculture Under Secretary in charge of food stamps. He said: if the Governor asks to negotiate the fairness issue the Agriculture Department is willing to talk. But the Governor hasn’t asked.

And now the food stamp program is facing a new problem. With the 25% reduction in government salaries as a result of the new budget more people are signing up for food stamps.
But we have a $12 million cap.

More people, the same amount of money, means lower benefits for all. And that’s not fair.

So yesterday I contacted Secretary Vilsack, explaining the shutdown and the new budget, and asked him to reprogram funds so food stamp benefits are not cut, just as things are getting worse for so many families in the CNMI.

Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

Enough about the Covenant Party. What about the candidate for office, who told you that we need to “fight for the Covenant.”

His plan, apparently, is to convince members of Congress that they broke the promise in the Covenant “to assist the government of the Commonwealth in its efforts to achieve a progressively higher standard of living for its people…”

Fact check: since the Covenant came into effect, Congress has provided over $3 billion to assist the Commonwealth. Last year alone we received $261 million. And most of the $100 million we are getting from the Recovery Act is not included in that number.

It’s hard to make the case that the US has not kept its promise.

Let me tell you what a Congresswoman from California said to me when I first met her and was explaining the needs of the CNMI. She said: “But you don’t pay US taxes.”

“My constituents,” she said, “pay taxes.”

How much headway do you think I would have made with this woman – who is a former pizza restaurant owner, not a lawyer – if I started “fighting” some legalistic battle over the Covenant? Not much.

And about four months ago, she walked up to me out of the blue and said: “What can I do to help you? I chair a subcommittee. We control programs that could help the Marianas. Let me know what you want me to do?”

That’s a friendship that will bear benefits for the Commonwealth. And that’s a friendship that would never have been born, if I had tried to “fight for the Covenant.”

It’s based on goodwill.

Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

The fourth Rotarian test is perhaps the most difficult to apply in Congress. Where there are limited resources, there is competition. And each member of Congress has been elected to get as much as possible for the home district. That’s our job.

Oddly, both the Governor and the Republican candidate criticized me for getting $158 million for the CNMI Medicaid program as part of the health care reform law we passed in Congress this year. That’s triple what we were getting.

They both say it would be better to get a change in the Medicaid match. Right now it’s 50-50. One dollar of local money gets one dollar of federal money.

When Governor Babauta was here he said the CNMI spends $15 million on Medicaid. Then why, you may ask, are we only getting $5 million in federal funds? Isn’t it supposed to be 50-50?

The answer is that our Medicaid dollars are capped at $5 million. No matter how much local money we spend each year, we never get more federal money.

Even if the match were 75-25 as Governor Babauta suggested, we would still only get $5 million each year.

That’s why I worked so hard to lift the cap. Starting in July we get $9 million. But 2019 we get $21 million.

Under health care reform, that $15 million in local funds Governor Babauta says we are spending
will soon be matched with $15 million in federal funds, not the $5 million we’re getting now.

And that will benefit us all.

Looking forward, we need to do more of this creative accounting, using federal funds more effectively to address the Commonwealth’s needs.

For instance, federal law allows us to consolidate grants we get from each federal department. PSS does this very effectively, putting all their education grants in a pool, then focusing their money where it will do the most good.

The rest of the CNMI government should take the same approach – especially in these tough times. But consolidation is at the discretion of each US department. So when I return to DC for the lame duck session in November I’ll be working on legislation that will make it easier to consolidate funds. That will give the Commonwealth government more flexibility to meet the public needs and the government payroll.

We also have to look at sweeping up unexpended balances from federal accounts at the end of each fiscal year – automatically – so we don’t lose monies that are rightfully ours
and could benefit us all. This is what we need to do going forward.

Because — I have to be honest with you — it will only be harder to get federal support in the years ahead.

You heard the Republican Chairman Steele when he was here: his plan is to take away all the Recovery Act money we haven’t spent — something like $75 million — and repeal the health care law with our $158 million in Medicaid funding.

That’s why I am asking for your vote on November 2nd. Because times are tough in the Northern Marianas and times are going to get tougher in Washington.

Under those circumstances, as they say, we can’t afford to have someone “learning on the job.”

I am running against people with experience: a former Lt. Governor, a former Washington Rep,
a one-term CNMI legislator.

But there’s only one job experience that matters: being a member of Congress. That’s the experience that I offer.

I think I’ve proven myself as your Congressman.

And if re-elected I will continue to do what Rotarians do: tell the truth and work for what’s fair, building on the goodwill and friendships I’ve already established, and looking for solutions to the problems of the Northern Marianas – and our nation – that will benefit all.

Thank you.

I have read lots of speeches from CNMI lawmakers.  This one ranks among the most sincere and honest.  Congressman Sablan is correct in saying that he is respected among his colleagues. I was honored to have been invited to a meeting of the Hispanic Caucus. The introductory remarks that members of the caucus made when introducing Congressman Sablan showed that he was respected and admired as a colleague.


Anonymous said...

What an honest and courageous speech. One can only wonder how the Fitial administration will spin this into some sort of heresy. For the good of the CNMI, I hope the people of the Commonwealth return this man to his seat.

The Saipan Blogger said...

There is a lie in the fourth paragraph of this speech, which I plan to discuss on my blog. With so many ways to criticize the governor, there is no reason to invent falsehoods.

Anonymous said...


How on earth is this a lie?

"The day I took the oath of office he dropped by – for an hour. He didn’t even bother to attend the swearing in at the Capitol – of the very first Northern Marianas Delegate to the US Congress. He had “a meeting to go to,” he said."

He stated that Fitial chose not to attend his swearing in because of another meeting. Where is the lie?

You, Angelo, are the one lying!

Captain said...

I specifically remember an article mentioning that fact the Fitial did not show up at the swearing in because of a "prior commitment". I also remember Fitial not showing up at other scheduled hearing in Wa. He had someone else there in one particular one.