It's been nearly eight years since I last saw Tom Delay. I was a high school teacher on the small Pacific island of Saipan. Delay was on a fact-finding mission. I regret that we didn't get a chance to talk.
A visit by a sitting member of Congress is still extremely rare on this tropical outpost, over 3000 miles west of Hawaii. Saipan is the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. territory created after American marines expelled Japanese forces in WWII. Today, Saipan welcomes tens of thousands of tourists annually. Visitors tour battle fields, snorkel crystal waters, and golf the island's world famous links.
I'm sure Mr. Delay, joined by his wife and daughter, enjoyed his stay at the island's finest resort. But it was government business, not tourism, that brought the House Majority Whip to Saipan. Like many residents, I was pleased to see that Delay had made a personal effort to assess our situation. The island was experiencing remarkable changes. By the mid-nineties, the territory's lenient labor and immigration laws had created a free-market haven for a burgeoning garment industry. Unlike Guam and Puerto Rico, the CNMI was authorized by Congress to maintain its own minimum wage and non-resident worker laws.
These conditions were perfect for powerful garment magnates, including a Hong Kong businessman named Willie Tan. Tan used his considerable resources to build factories, employee barracks, and political connections. Like Western miners a century ago, garment employees lived in guarded compounds where they had to purchase room, board, and store supplies at company rates. Capos discouraged these workers from exploring their legal rights, despite a status as guest workers on American soil. Hourly minimum wage seemed permanently fixed at a dismal $2.90. Such arrangements helped Saipan garment factories produce tariff-free "made in the USA " clothing at a fraction of the mainland cost. Given that the garment industry lobby controlled a local TV station, the island's largest newspaper, and a number of CNMI legislators, the possibility for reform looked grim.
Local optimism about Delay's visit stemmed from a belief that the solution to Saipan 's problems transcended political partisanship. The Department of the Interior had recommended a gradual annual increase in minimum wage over the next decade and encouraged vigorous enforcement of labor violations. With Congressional approval, these moderate and necessary steps could proceed.
Many of the indigenous peoples on Saipan supported these moves. Sold out by their leaders, native islanders had watched helplessly as foreign labor made them a minority group on their ancestor's land. Many felt powerless as their culture collapsed around them and employment options for their children dried up.
Surely, we thought, Delay would agree with us that these existing practices were harmful, unsustainable, and downright un-American. Among Saipan residents who were familiar with mainland labor laws, the question of federal intervention was a no-brainer. Regardless of our political leanings, we believed that pressure from Washington was needed to challenge vested interests. Even the island's community of conservative southern Baptist missionaries—a group not particularly known for seeking government regulation—shared this conclusion. In fact, local Evangelicals and Catholics worried openly about a unregulated environment that had emboldened efficiency-minded factory managers to force abortions on their immigrant employees.
We now know that Delay was blind to these injustices. Earlier this week, the Associated Press used an open records request to confirm what many of us suspected after Delay's 1998 visit. The congressman's trip was a political favor for lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a man he called "one of my closest and dearest friends." Abramoff, now under criminal investigation, remains at the center of an ongoing ethics investigation into Delay's travel expenses and close relationship with lobbyists.
Such relationships made Delay a particularly useful ally after the CNMI governors office, working in concert with garment industry officials, hired Abramoff. In the late nineties, the CNMI paid out an astronomical $8 million to Abramoff's firm Preston & Gates. Not coincidentally, the legislation aimed at reforming island labor practices never saw the House floor.
In the weeks ahead, we will hear more about Delay and "possible ethics violations." This language is unfortunate. For many Americans, ethics violations are viewed as technical oversights, fiscal improprieties, or personal abuses of power. Such thinking ignores the profound impact a leader's decisions can have on real people.
For the tens of thousands of laborers and native islanders who have suffered under prolonged government corruption, Delay's ethical choices have had an impact. Real human beings have been cheated in their pursuit of a livelihood. Real human beings have seen their traditional cultural connections severed. And real human beings have learned that Constitutional rights are too easily skirted.
I still wish I could speak with Mr. Delay. I have no idea whether he broke any House ethics rules when he visited Saipan. But given the renewed interest in his actions, I would like to ask him more about the factors that determine his political decisions. "People know that Majority Leader Delay stands on principles and bases his voting decisions on the merits," a spokesperson argued last week. I, for one, remain unconvinced.
Stephen Mucher is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University (Ypsilanti). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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