In 1989 Eni F. H. Faleomavaega became only the second Delegate from American Samoa to serve in the House. Upon his departure from Congress 26 years later, Faleomavaega owned the distinction, albeit briefly, as the longest-serving Delegate in House history. As a House committee staffer in the 1970s, Faleomavaega had helped American Samoa gain a House seat and during his time in Congress was “dogged in his determination to improve the economic lot of his island territory,” according to one political almanac.1 Being a Delegate from American Samoa was not always the easiest job, but his strong relationship with Democratic leaders and his work in committee often helped him overcome the circumscribed powers of his office, and earned him the moniker the “champion of the Pacific Islanders.”2
Eni Fa‘aua‘a Hunkin Faleomavaega Jr., was born on August 15, 1943, to Eni Fa‘aua‘a Sr., and Taualaitufanuaimeaatamali‘i. His last name, in Samoan, “means house where important things or decisions are made.” Faleomavaega grew up in Vailoatai Village, a fishing and boat-building community along the island’s southwest coast. “Our culture is very much closely associated with families,” the Congressman said in 2011. “Of course you have your immediate family, and then we also have what is known as the extended family, or you might say clans in that respect. So I might be related to 15 or 20 different clans—both on my mother’s side and my father’s side.”3
Faleomavaega’s father served in the U.S. Navy, and when the Delegate was just a boy, the military transferred the family to Hawaii, making room deep below deck of an outdated ship for Samoan families by placing makeshift beds in the cargo hold. “It was the most inhumane way of transporting human passengers,” Faleomavaega recalled. “It was like a dungeon in there.”4 Faleomavaega spent “about half” his life in Hawaii, graduating from Kahuku High School in northern Oahu. He spent his first two years of college at nearby Church College, before transferring to Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah.5 In 1966 Faleomavaega graduated from BYU and enlisted in the United States Army. In 1972, after a tour in Vietnam, where he was exposed to the dangerous chemical Agent Orange during his time in Nha Trang, Faleomavaega earned a JD from the University of Houston in Texas. He then accepted a fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, earning an LLM in 1973.6 Faleomavaega married Antonina Hinanui; together they raised five children.
Also in 1973, Faleomavaega moved across the country and took a job with Paramount Chief A. U. Fuimaono, American Samoa’s “Delegate at Large” and its first elected official in Washington. Since American Samoa did not have an official Delegate in the U.S. House until 1981, Fuimaono worked more like an elected lobbyist for the islands. On issues pertaining to American Samoa and the South Pacific, Fuimaono would often testify before Congress, including the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Territorial and Insular Affairs, chaired by Phillip Burton of California.7
In 1975 Faleomavaega made the jump to the House and took a job with Burton’s subcommittee. He worked with Burton until 1981, helping to secure representation in the House for his home islands. “I kept asking Congressman Burton . . . how do we justify having a small little territory being represented in the U.S. House of Representatives as a delegate[?]” Burton told him that size did not matter; American Samoa was a U.S. territory like Guam and the Virgin Islands and was therefore entitled to a voice in the House.8 Faleomavaega later estimated that the eight years he spent working on Capitol Hill were “probably equivalent to me working in American Samoa for thirty years in trying to understand how the system functions, how it operates.”9
Faleomavaega returned to American Samoa in 1981 when he became the deputy attorney general, “so I could feel the people’s pains and sufferings and so that I might be able to serve them with more meaningful purpose,” he would later say.10 In 1985 voters on the island elected him lieutenant governor.
In early September 1988, American Samoa’s first Territorial Delegate, Fofó I. F. Sunia, resigned from the House after pleading guilty to payroll fraud. Faleomavaega, leveraging his wide name recognition as lieutenant governor of the small island chain, ran against American Samoa’s former lieutenant governor, Tufele Li’a, to fill the vacancy. At the time, elections in American Samoa differed from many of those on the mainland in that there were no primary campaigns on the islands. Moreover, if no candidate in the general election captured 50 percent of the vote, the race automatically headed to a runoff two weeks later. On Election Day, Faleomavaega captured 3,739 votes—only 358 votes more than his challenger—and failed to reach the 50 percent threshold that would have given him the victory. But a short while later, on November 22, 1988, Faleomavaega won the runoff and became the second Delegate to represent the islands in the House.11
Like his first race, a handful of his re-election races were nail biters. During Faleomavaega’s career running for Delegate, the total number of votes cast in American Samoa, an island chain with only 56,000 people, exceeded 13,000 only once.12
Geographically, American Samoa has slightly more square mileage than the District of Columbia, but the islands have less than one tenth the population of the average congressional district on the mainland.13 With access to the South Pacific fishery, American Samoa, during Faleomavaega’s tenure, was home to large tuna canneries, but for the most part, the federal government helped maintain the territory’s standard of living, pumping millions of dollars into the economy every year.14 In the search for new jobs and better opportunities, many on American Samoa join the U.S. military, giving the islands one of the highest enlistment rates in the country.15 A number of Samoans also lived full time on the mainland which, for Faleomavaega, translated to unique re-election campaigns. Whereas the vast majority of Members campaigned in their home district, Faleomavaega often campaigned in regions of the country home to high concentrations of his fellow islanders. “I’m probably the only member that has to go to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, or Hawaii where we have communities . . . where I would attend their community activities.” Often, he said, Samoans living on the mainland would rather talk to him than their actual elected Representative. “We are very tribal in our ways.”16
When Faleomavaega began his House career, he maneuvered to secure a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee as quickly as possible. As the new Delegate saw it, the committee’s membership did not fully reflect the breadth of America’s interests abroad. “The entire mentality of Washington, twenty-two years ago, was Europe and the Middle East,” he said in a 2011 oral history. “Asia Pacific was not even on the map. It was not even on the radar screen.” But as Faleomavaega understood it, Foreign Affairs was reserved for Members who had already served “at least one or two terms” in the House—meaning that as a freshman, Faleomavaega would likely have been passed over. “So I pleaded my case with the leadership,” he later remembered. “I felt there needs to be some diversity here, infusion of the Asia Pacific, if you will. So they allowed me to be member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.”17
Faleomavaega suspected the House’s indifference toward Asia stemmed in part from the makeup of Foreign Affairs’ subcommittees. “What was interesting is that when I got onto the Committee, nobody wanted to be on the Asia Pacific subcommittee,” he remembered. “Well, I shouldn’t say nobody[,] but the fact was that the two subcommittees that members really didn’t want to be members of [were] Asia Pacific and Africa.”18 While Faleomavaega believed that the allure of the already well-developed markets in Europe and the Middle East accounted for such neglect, he also believed there was a deeper, more troubling cause of the global disparity on the committee. “I suspect one reason, if you look at the history; America has never had a positive relationship really with the Asia Pacific region.” World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War: each conflict likely deepened the prejudice against that section of the world, he said. “In my perspective, I think when we talk about the Asia Pacific . . . there’s unbalance, there’s a lot of racial feelings about people coming from the Asia Pacific region, unfortunately, but that’s the reality that we’re faced with.”19
That first conversation with party leadership was all Faleomavaega needed; he served on the Foreign Affairs Committee for his entire career. During his quarter-century in the House, the Delegate served on a number of subcommittees: Asia and the Pacific; International Economic Policy and Trade; International Operations; Arms Control, International Security and Science; International Operations and Human Rights; East Asia and the Pacific; the Western Hemisphere; and Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment. His longevity on the committee translated into leadership positions by 2001. Beginning with the 107th Congress (2001–2003), Faleomavaega was named the Ranking Democrat on the East Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee, and when his party took back the House in the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011), Faleomavaega served as chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment. After the Democrats returned to the minority, Faleomavaega resumed his seat as Ranking Member of the subcommittee.20
Faleomavaega’s chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment became an increasingly important assignment as America’s economy expanded to markets in China and its surrounding trade partners.21 As chairman, Faleomavaega held hearings on a host of different issues: human rights, the fishing industry, nuclear and renewable power, climate change, and diplomatic relations with a broad range of Pacific countries—South Korea, the Marshall Islands, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Cambodia. From a general foreign policy perspective, Faleomavaega took a hard line against America’s unilateral military interventions, and called for diplomatic solutions that included the international community.22
In his second Congress as chairman of the subcommittee, Faleomavaega slowed the pace of hearings and built on the legislative groundwork he set in the 110th Congress, revisiting a number of issues the subcommittee considered earlier: U.S. policy toward North Korea, the South Pacific tuna industry, the continual legacy of Agent Orange, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Japan’s changing role in the regional and global economy, the ramifications of global warming, and America’s general policy in the Pacific.23 As chairman, Faleomavaega also used his influence to look out for the interests of his home islands. Among other measures, the House passed his bill, the Pacific Island Economic and Educational Development Act of 2007 (H.R. 3062), on September 5, 2007. The legislation appropriated $1 million a year for two years to fund cultural and educational exchange programs in the region.24
That party leaders selected Faleomavaega to lead a subcommittee was a huge legislative boost for the Delegate. House Rules forbid statutory representatives from voting on the floor, but his ability to craft legislation in the early stages gave Faleomavaega outsized influence. “I think we’ve come a long way in improving the situation,” he said toward the end of his career, “delegates now can vote in committee, can hold chairmanships, can introduce bills, can debate on the floor, do all other things as other members do with that one exception . . . voting for legislation on the floor. . . . I do ninety percent of the work, but that ten percent of voting on the floor, even though that isn’t the most critical aspect of it, being a full member of Congress is that you vote on final passage of legislation. And we’re not allowed to do that simply because of the Constitution.”25
Faleomavaega also served brief stints on a handful of other committees. He spent two terms (101st and 102nd Congresses [1989–1993]) on the Select Committee on Hunger; one term (102nd Congress [1991–1993]) on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee; one term (103rd Congress [1993–1995]) on the Education and Labor Committee; and two terms (108th and 109th Congresses [2003–2007]) on the Small Business Committee.
Along with Foreign Affairs, Faleomavaega served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee for his entire House career as well, although for the vast majority of his time in Congress the committee was called Natural Resources or just Resources. The committee was and remains a natural home for statutory representatives. “All the issues affecting the territories come under that [committee],” he once pointed out. Traditionally, each Delegate and the Resident Commissioner serves on the panel. As Faleomavaega said, “We are the counterparts to the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees all the U.S. territories.”26
Faleomavaega sat on a number of different Resources subcommittees during his House career: General Oversight and Investigations; Insular and International Affairs; General Oversight and California Desert Lands; Native American Affairs; National Parks, Forests, and Lands; Native American and Insular Affairs; National Parks and Public Lands; Energy and Mineral Resources; Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans; National Parks, Recreations, and Public Lands; Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife; Insular Affairs; Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans; Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs; and Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.27
Faleomavaega used his seat on the committee to address the immediate concerns of his constituents and campaign for the interests of America’s native peoples everywhere. “I’ve always expressed an interest [in] the rights of the indigenous people throughout the world that I don’t think has been given fair treatment, I suppose you might put it in those terms,” Faleomavaega said towards the end of his career.28 Faleomavaega designed his work on behalf of America’s indigenous population in large part to raise awareness on issues affecting communities all over the country. One of his first legislative successes in 1990 (H.J. Res. 577) proclaimed November “Native American Indian Heritage Month,” which he replicated in 1991 and 1992. In the 102nd Congress, his bill to name 1992 the “Year of the American Indian” garnered 226 cosponsors, and he pushed to improve educational programs for American Indians everywhere.29 Democratic leaders took notice of his work, and for the 104th Congress (1995–1997) they named him the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Native American and Insular Affairs. In the subcommittee, he submitted a number of bills dealing with the federal recognition of American Indian nations and encouraging the tribes’ self-determination. For the 106th Congress (1999–2001), he was also named Ranking Democrat of the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans.
By the 106th Congress, Faleomavaega’s work on the Resources Committee included a strong environmental component with direct bearing on American Samoa’s economy. Since his first term, when the House passed Faleomavaega’s H. Con. Res. 214 condemning driftnet fishing in the South Pacific, he worked to end the practice of targeting wild tuna stocks while ensuring his territory’sfinancial health.30
By 2009 the tuna industry accounted for nearly 60 percent of the economy in American Samoa.31 In addition to protecting the resource, Faleomavaega also had to protect jobs in his district. To compete with nearby markets in the South Pacific and the robust fishing industry in South America, officials in American Samoa and Washington had kept wages well below the national average. In 2007, after Democrats won back the House partly on promises to increase the minimum wage, Faleomavaega lobbied his party’s leadership to exclude American Samoa from the raise. Faleomavaega worried that the major canners in his district would move their operations to markets where labor cost a fraction of what it did on American Samoa. The final legislation, however, mandated an increase in the minimum wage by 2014. Though other issues factored in, too, the bill convinced one of the major tuna processors to move abroad, costing the islands thousands of jobs. On the day the tuna packing plant was scheduled to close, a major tsunami hit the territory, caused vast destruction, and killed two dozen people. Once the islands started rebuilding, Faleomavaega submitted legislation—which Congress passed—delaying the minimum wage increase there.32 Along with maintaining the cost of labor, Faleomavaega also worked to protect generous tax breaks for the Samoan fishing industry.33 Given the territory’s reliance on a handful of employers, he pushed to diversify American Samoa’s revenue sources and encourage investments in aquaculture and seafloor mineral extraction.34
In 1988 Congress approved the National Park of American Samoa (the United States’ 50th national park), which spread across a number of the territory’s islands.35 Later a group of village chiefs back home approached the Delegate about expanding the park’s boundaries to the include parts of nearby islands, Ofu and Olosega. After four years of planning, Faleomavaega earned a major victory in May 2001 when he sponsored H.R. 1712, which added nearly 3,000 acres to the existing tract. The House Resources Committee reported it favorably on March 12, 2002: “Expanding park boundaries to include land and water on the island of Ofu and Olosega would help protect vast coral communities which harbor a great diversity of species and offer excellent scuba diving opportunities,” the committee wrote. The new park would also protect a host of reef ecosystems and a variety of birds, turtles, and rare giant clams. Moreover, the committee observed, “The addition of rainforest and coral reef on Ofu and Olosega would provide greater hiking opportunities and help to diversify visitor use and lessen the impact on the reef. In addition,” the committee continued, “a high concentration of medicinal plants in the area would be protected. Many of these plants are disappearing and are in need of preservation.”36 When the bill went before the Senate, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources warmly received Faleomavaega’s testimony and favorably reported the legislation.37 His bill became law on December 16, 2002.38
Faleomavaega’s concern for the environment extended beyond the needs of his district’s economy. In the mid-1990s, he worked to end France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific (getting arrested during one protest) and a few years later submitted bills calling for the study of the shark population and the protection of coral reefs.39 He also worked to amend the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Establishment Act to make it easier for the organization to accept private donations.40 In the 107th Congress, Faleomavaega pushed for a stronger tsunami relief program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and submitted the Shark Protect Act of 2001, which outlawed the sale of shark fins.41 Three years later, he convinced Congress to give the Utrok Atoll a decommissioned NOAA ship that could be used to monitor radiology levels near U.S. nuclear testing sites. The bill also included a number of fisheries regulations.42
Throughout his time in the House, Faleomavaega kept American Samoa at the heart of his legislative agenda: everything from trade to the environment, to its relationship with the federal government. The Delegate worked to include American Samoa in a number of federal initiatives during the 1990s, including the Supplemental Security Income Program, programs serving Americans with disabilities, and even a program that issued emergency livestock feed.43 In the 106th Congress, Faleomavaega amended the Interior Department’s appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2000 to establish a payment plan for American Samoa’s existing debt and helped clarify the eligibility of U.S. nationals to donate to political campaigns.44 He worked to lift the cap on Medicaid spending in the territory and steered to passage a law that required the Internal Revenue Service to treat bonds issued by American Samoa in the same way it treated tax-free bonds issued by the other territories. He also worked on an overhaul of American Samoa’s election law which would eliminate the automatic runoff if the islands did not institute a primary season.45
Faleomavaega lost re-election in 2014 in a nine-candidate race, taking roughly 31 percent, or 3,157 votes, and finishing second to Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, who garnered a 42 percent plurality.46 The Delegate’s health was a major factor in his loss. Late in the race, Faleomavaega had to be flown to Hawaii to receive emergency medical treatment for the lingering effects of his exposure to Agent Orange during his tour in Vietnam more than 40 years earlier. It nearly cost him his life. “There were . . . a lot of rumors floating around that I’m way too sick,” he said a few days after the election. “It’s understandable.”47 As Faleomavaega weighed his future, he revealed that he still felt compelled to serve his island territory, working with the next generation back home, “sharing the sense of my experience with our young people,” he said.48 “I go forward, Mr. Speaker,” he said in his farewell address on the House Floor a few weeks later, “knowing that the best is yet to come and hoping that I will be remembered for trying my best.”49
Faleomavaega died at his home in Provo, Utah, on February 22, 2017. “Eni was a restless champion for the rights and advancement of his constituents,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement after learning of his death. “His life and leadership powerfully spotlighted the immense contributions of Americans from U.S. territories.”50
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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