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COFA and the politics of delay

By Cleo Paskal

Tony Zielinski is a regular American citizen, who was enjoying his life in Florida.  Then he read about the problems with the renewals of key elements of the Compacts of Free Association with Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. Previously, he didn’t know much about the region, but he knew what was happening was wrong.


Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Zielinski traveled from Florida to Washington to hold a press conference at the National Press Club.  In basketball terms, he said, approving the agreements was a “layup.”


Indeed, it should have been. Few pieces of legislation have such widespread and bipartisan support.  And now, there is finally hope that the COFA legislation will be approved by Congress. It has been included in a massive $450 billion funding bill that is over a thousand pages long which must be passed by Friday midnight or around half the U.S. government shuts down. It is likely to be voted on by the House of Representatives by around Wednesday then move to the Senate for approval.


Many in the freely associated states have been understandably frustrated and angered that it has taken this long to even get to this point. A summary of some of the impediments involved, and how much support the FAS has received from across the political spectrum in the United States, might give some context – and some insight into what’s going on in Washington, D.C. these days.


On the U.S. side, the negotiations themselves were mostly led by the Department of State. They suffered a series of delays until finally, at the urging of President Surangel Whipps Jr. of Palau and the Marshall Islands government, and with congressional support, the White House appointed Joseph Yun as the presidential envoy for Compact negotiations.

The FAS had done their job and acted in good faith.  Now it shifted to Congress.


However, the fractious U.S. Congress itself couldn’t agree on a budget for its government, so it kept itself alive through a temporary fix called a continuing resolution.

The FSM and the Marshall Islands, whose COFA service and funding agreements expired on Sept. 30, 2023 were included in the continuing resolution at the rates of the previous agreement. 


As Palau’s agreement doesn’t expire until 2024, it wasn’t included in the CR, even though it had been promised the new level of funding would start, along with the others, on Oct. 1,  2023.  This has caused serious financial distress in Palau.


A key issue in Congress is the House Republican's rule requiring that the cost of new multi-year mandatory spending must be “offset” by budget cuts or revenue increases.

The compact legislation was close to being included in the National Defense Appropriations Act, a must-pass massive funding act, but no politically acceptable offsets could be found. 

House Republicans came up with this rule in 2011 and have since continued to use it in every House they have controlled. (Democrats had the majority from 2019 through 2022).

That's why it took over seven years to approve the smaller (about $250 million) 2010 Compact agreement (when half the money had already been paid without agreement approval).

The offset rule is a bigger issue in this Congress because: 1) Republicans have a two-vote majority in the 435-member House; and 2) House Republicans adopted another new rule last year enabling any one member to propose removing the speaker from office.


The speaker's roles include choosing committee members and deciding what legislation gets put forward, among others. Since Democrats won't vote for a Republican for speaker, that enables just a few Republicans to remove the speaker and be essential in the election of a new speaker.

The agreement was made during the grueling vote for Kevin McCarthy for speaker. That's also why McCarthy was removed when he made a budget deal with the Senate and President Biden, and why it took a while to elect current Speaker Mike Johnson.

Now, Johnson is concerned he could lose the speakership if he violates the offset rule and lets a spending increase be voted on and passed with Democratic as well as Republican votes. However, another rule is that "emergency" appropriations are exempt from the offset rule. The Ukraine-Israel bill falls in this category.

The Senate version had included the compact legislation until just before it was officially released. Twenty-four bipartisan senators, led by Sens, Risch and Hirono, tried but failed to re-include it via amendment. At that point, there was a realization on the Hill that there was a serious problem with the compacts. 


A group of 26 bipartisan senators wrote to Senate leadership: "Failure to pass the renegotiated compacts as soon as possible imperils our relationships with the freely associated states and the entire Pacific island region, who view the COFA as a barometer of the U.S. commitment to the region."

At the lower House, 28 Republicans and 20 Democrats led by Reps. Steve Womack and Ed Case sent a bipartisan letter to Speaker Johnson, calling for the immediate approval of the COFA legislation "to instill confidence in our ability to uphold our commitments to critical security partners, longtime friends and allies."


The House Republican Study Committee included the compact in its China bill. While the bill has a long way to go before becoming law, it was important as it signaled to Speaker Johnson that a large number of Republicans supported passing the compacts, regardless of the offset issue. That paved the way for the current situation, in which the compact legislation is included in the funding bill that has a greater chance of passing.


When President Reagan promised the people of the freely associated states that they would be treated like family, he should have explained that, at times, the U.S. can be a very dysfunctional family.  The confusion, delays and at times arrogance that the FAS has experienced during this (hopefully now) once-in-a-twenty-year cycle are things that American citizens are now going through regularly.

 It’s not personal.  And if anything what it has shown is that, when it comes to the compacts, both houses of Congress, and both parties, are uniquely united in understanding the profound depth of the relationships, and their importance.  

 It is likely the compact legislation will be passed by next week. If not, be assured there are members of Congress, congressional staffers, American media and yes, patriotic Americans like Zielinski, who are grateful that the FAS have chosen to be part of the American family and who will be working to make sure that Washington’s political dysfunction doesn’t get in the way of a shared future.

Cleo Paskal is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies =focusing on the Indo-Pacific region.


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