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Fono seeks Uifa’atali Amata’s assistance in move to change veto override

Congresswoman Uifa’atali Amata

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Federal law mandates that amendments to the American Samoa Constitution are subject to approval of the U.S. Congress.

But senators want that changed, with the Senate Rules Committee endorsing a verbal motion to send a resolution to Congresswoman Uifa’atali Amata requesting appropriate legislation that would remove Congressional approval.

The committee’s motion was made at the conclusion of a hearing on Tuesday, where senators discussed the Senate Joint Resolution seeking to give the Fono the authority to override the governor’s vote of a bill, instead of the Secretary of Interior — as it stands now.

Senate legal counsel Mitzie Jessop-Ta’ase was the sole witness and she explained the purpose of the resolution, which — if endorsed by the Fono — would go to voters to decide on in the next general election.

As previously reported by Samoa News this is not the first time the proposed amendment has come before the Fono and been presented to voters, who rejected it — at least three times in past elections.

There was support for the resolution from the committee members during the committee hearing, with Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono suggesting that if the measure is endorsed by the Fono — public hearings should be held to explain to the community the purpose and importance of the proposed amendment to the Constitution.

He suggested holding public hearing at the Senate — conducted by the Fono and not any other agency of ASG. He said that anytime there’s a proposed change to the constitution in past years, the community hasn’t understood the explanation provided by a government panel.

He noted that the US Congress and all state legislatures have the authority to override a veto — but not American Samoa. He pointed out that there are 18 senators and 21 faipule that make decisions on legislation, but it’s the governor alone who decides on the veto.

Sen. Malaepule Saite Moliga supports the measure and agreed to Soliai’s suggestion, saying that these public hearings are important prior to voters making their decision.

However, two other senators were concerned with the impact on federal funding if the Secretary of Interior is removed from the veto override authority.

Samoa News points out that this same concern has been raised over the years, every time this issue comes to voters for their decision at the polls.

Senate President Tuaolo Manaia Fruean explained that any changes to the federal law would not take away federal assistance to the territory that comes through the Interior Department, which oversees American Samoa and provides the annual funding allocation.

Tuaolo then informed senators that amendments to the local Constitution go to the U.S Congress for review and final approval and queried Jessop-Taase about this matter.

The Senate legal counsel responded that federal law requires that after the Secretary of Interior reviews amendments to the Constitution of American Samoa it then goes to Congress for approval. She pointed out that this issue can be on the agenda for discussion in the upcoming Constitutional Convention.

Tuaolo observed that the question arising now, is how long or the length of waiting time before Congress — which deals with many issues for the entire nation — will take up amendments to the local Constitution.

The Senate President informed senators of the reasons behind the current federal law requiring Congressional approval. He recalled during the tenure of then Congressman Fofo I.F. Sunia, who was concerned that only one-person, the Secretary of Interior, makes the final decision on amendments to the local Constitution so the law was changed giving Congress that approval authority.

Tuaolo believes that it’s long overdue for the Senate to take up this matter now and suggested that the Fono work with Uifa’atali on the appropriate avenue to change the current law.

Several senators spoke about the issue and agreed to start consultation with Uifa’atali commencing through an appropriate Senate approved resolution. Soliai believes that Congress should still have the authority to have the final review, instead of just one-person — the Secretary of Interior — making the final decision on American Samoa’s Constitution.

Sen. Fai’ivae Iuli Godinet recalled that the late former Congressman Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin had also tried to make changes to the federal law, removing the authority of Congress to approve amendments to the constitution and returning that authority solely to the Secretary of Interior.

He said that Faleomavaega looked at it at the time as Congress not having sufficient time to review issues pertaining to American Samoa. Fai’ivae — a long time staffer of Faleomavaega — said that there are many times that specific matters for American Samoa are included in other major Congressional legislation.

Following the 45-minute hearing, the committee agreed to send a resolution to Uifa’atali asking her assistance with federal legislation removing the approval of Congress from making final decisions on changes to the local Constitution.

The committee also endorsed the veto-override resolution, which was then approved in third and final reading during yesterday’s Senate session. The measure now goes to the House for their review and consideration.