Connecting Washington over 7,000 miles away in the Pacific, a new Congressional bill seeks to introduce insular areas – island territories and states under a US jurisdiction – representatives to federal executive departments.
Congressional representatives introduced bipartisan bill H.R. 5001 to establish “Special Advisors” for Pacific Island countries and US territories in federal executive departments, signaling an increased demand for Pacific Island representation in Washington’s policymaking sphere.
The bill designates “insular areas” – defined under Title 48 of the US Code as the “Freely Associated States (FAS)” comprising the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau, and US “territories” comprising American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and other miscellaneous islands and atolls – as special advisor recipients.
Special advisors would serve as “insular area representatives" in each of the Cabinet’s executive departments – excluding the Department of the Interior (DOI). Functions of these advisors would include assessing respective department initiatives, policies, and programs and their insular area impacts.
In an interview with Andreyka Natalegawa, an Associate Fellow for the Southeast Asia Program and contributor to the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Natalegawa highlights the value of insular areas representatives acting as intermediaries amidst a complex federal government structure in Washington. “The American system is incredibly vast” says Natalegawa, “and sometimes it’s hard for people to know who the right people to talk to are”.
By including special advisors able to “serve as an interlocutor” between insular areas and the federal government, Natalegawa believes the bill could be useful, and signal to Congress “how important these insular areas are to...the historical relationships the United States has with these nations and territories”.
The existing Interagency Group on Insular Areas under the DOI, which meets annually, solicits information and advice from insular area leaders to members of the US cabinet; however, these leaders represent only half of the insular area members, not all Cabinet heads are required to attend each annual meeting, and leaders function largely in response to federal policies rather than help shape them.
Compared to the continental United States, the insular areas and Hawaiʻi face unique climate change and economic development challenges. Typhoon Mawar impacted thousands of Guam residents’ electricity and clean water supplies this past June, while wildfires in Lāhainā, Hawaiʻi have been declared the deadliest on US soil in the past century. Responding to what he believes are the most pressing issues affecting the Pacific today, Natalegawa asserts “the impacts of climate change on these islands is existential”, citing rising sea levels and the importance of maritime law in fostering environmental protections (e.g., obeying international fishery boundaries) – especially for the FAS states, who hold larger exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and therefore engage in greater commercial fishing volumes than insular area territories (i.e., Guam, American Samoa, CNMI).
Angelique Pouponneau, a former policy adviser at the Alliance of Small Island States, stated that of the $76 million in small island developing states (SIDS) – which includes the Freely Associated States – funding from the United Nations, only 2% is delivered. The most recent Office of Insular Affairs Economic Contributions Report published in 2019, however, highlights the continuous growth of DOI contributions to insular areas’ GDP; data reports DOI economic contributions to insular areas GDP increased from $795 million (2017) to $888 million (2018) and more recently to $889 million (2019).
Demonstrating further positive changes in the region, the recent US-Pacific Islands Forum Summit in September 2023 saw enhanced initiatives tackling climate change and promoting economic development in the Pacific. Investing in climate data collection for Early Warning Systems (EWS) against inclement weather, mobilizing climate finance in partnership with USAID, and launching finance programs for local enterprises of all sizes were each announced following the summit.
Global attention has shifted towards Pacific-based insular areas in recent years, continuing conversations on the region’s climate and economic development in Washington and beyond. H.R. 5001 could be leveraged in favor of insular areas at the federal level with high-level representatives voicing concerns on behalf of local island communities in the Pacific; further legislation targeting the Pacific region’s needs could also be expected following H.R. 5001’s ratification. While the bill and other initiatives announced at the Pacific Islands Forum Summit have yet to be realized, the conversation to protect these communities for generations to come is alive and well.
Declan Mazur is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, DC. He holds a bachelors in Global China Studies from New York University Shanghai with a concentration in Political Science.