NOT ONLY did Nancy Pelosi make history last week as the first female House Speaker in the US, second in line to the presidency, she also made history as the first top American elected official to come from a district with a significant Filipino constituency.
Speaker Pelosi’s San Francisco district has a population that is approximately seven-percent Filipino, and is predominantly Democratic in political registration. Because of her commitment to make her staff reflect her community’s diversity, she has hired Filipino Americans, most recently, Charmaine Manansala from Vallejo, California.
Pelosi has been supportive of Filipino community issues since she was first elected to her House seat in 1987 when she signed on as a co-sponsor of Rep. Mervyn Dymally's Filipino WW II veterans naturalization bill. It was in her congressional district that the first Filipino WW II veterans were naturalized as a result of a court decision by Federal Judge Charles Renfrew in 1977. After the Filipino veterans naturalization bill was passed in 1990, Pelosi focused on the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill and has been a co-sponsor since it was first introduced in 1992.
At a House Veterans Committee hearing on the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill that was held on July 22, 1998, Rep. Pelosi introduced Filipino WW II veterans from her congressional district who had traveled to Washington DC to testify in support of the bill. She reminded the committee members that “the battle for the liberation of the Philippines was the beginning of Japan’s demise in the war… The courageous efforts of the Filipino soldiers, scouts, and guerillas were instrumental in that success.”
The Equity bill, she said, “provides that these Filipinos get the same assistance that retired US soldiers receive… If we fail to do this, I fear we send a message that the life of that of a foreigner is not as valuable as an American fighting in the same war, under the same command... I think that is a dangerous message.”
Under Dennis Hastert, Speaker Pelosi’s Republican predecessor, the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill could not even merit a hearing, a prerequisite to bringing the bill to a floor vote, as Hastert’s House Veterans Committee chair, Steve Buyer (R-Ohio), rejected all such pleas by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), the ranking Democratic member of his committee.
One of Speaker Pelosi’s first appointments was that of Filner as the new chair of the House Veterans Committee. Filner, the principal sponsor of the FilVets bill, has promised to hold hearings on the bill as soon as possible.
But even with a Democratic majority, passing the FilVets bill will not be easy. Rep. Pelosi acknowledged the difficulty in her testimony before the House committee in 1998: “I appreciate…the complexity of, and the resulting financial strain, on the Federal budget. As a result of the balanced budget agreement, we're required to find offsets to any additional costs with cuts in current programs. I do not believe cutting current programs to American veterans is the proper solution, of course. I do believe, however, that a solution exists and that it's vital we work together to find that solution before more of these veterans pass away and then it's too late.”
It is already too late for one of Pelosi’s constituents, Magdaleno Duenas, who died on February 27, 2005 at the age of 90. A week after his death, Pelosi paid tribute to Duenas on the floor of the House, honoring and thanking him “for his courageous military service and the sacrifices he made for our nation, as well as his lifelong struggle on behalf of Filipino veterans of World War II. His life is a symbol of the struggle for total recognition of Filipino veterans and a sad reminder of a shameful page in the history of our nation. “
“Mr. Duenas moved to San Francisco's Tenderloin district in 1993,” Pelosi said, “where he was vibrant member of our community. This diminutive, gentle man worked tirelessly to improve the experience of Filipino veterans in the Bay Area. All these years, he waited for the recognition of the US Government for the services he rendered during WWII. He was featured in two documentaries: Tears of Old, and Second Class Citizens. He died still waiting for the full equity bill to be passed by the US Congress. We will not rest until the equity bill becomes law.”
Speaker Pelosi’s support for Filipino community issues was not limited to the Filipino veterans. In November of 2004, she included $388,000 for the Filipino Cultural Center in San Francisco as part of the $388 billion spending bill that was sent by the House to President Bush. As House minority leader, Pelosi was able to tuck a long list of spending provisions for projects in her district into the bill that critics derided as a testament to “pork barrel spending.”
Among the “earmarks” that passed the Republican House was the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” which was a $223-M appropriation for an Alaskan bridge that was constructed to connect to an island of 50 people and sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who earmarked it as "high priority."
In contrast, Rep. Pelosi earmarked $788,000 for the Student Health Center of City College of San Francisco to provide the medical equipment and furniture needed for a center that annually serves 11,000 low-income students without medical insurance.
Although Pelosi believes many earmarks "are worthy" and "can be a legitimate way for Congress to force fiscal priorities on the White House," House Speaker Pelosi has promised to enact a rule requiring sponsors of earmarks to be identified. Currently, lawmakers can remain anonymous in sponsoring an earmark.
But for now, Speaker Pelosi’s biggest challenge is compelling President Bush to accept the verdict of the American people in the November 2006 elections to phase out US military involvement in the Iraqi civil war which has already claimed the lives of more than 3,011 US soldiers and more than $500 billion in US funds ($200 million a day).
Those funds should be better used in the US for the benefit of the American people. Less than a day of the cost of the Iraq War will be sufficient to fund the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill. This is what Speaker Pelosi will surely convey to President Bush.