Insights into the Workings of Congress Puts VI Delegate in the Scheme of Things

Above: Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett chats with a constituent at a town meeting held Feb. 22 in Cruz Bay. Photo courtesy of Judi Shimel.

A few weeks into the start of the 115th Congress, the Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress did what many of her counterparts in the House of Representatives were doing. Stacey Plaskett came back home and met with constituents in town meetings.

About 35 people showed up at the Cleone Creque Legislative Hall on Feb. 22 to hear from their elected representative to the House of Representatives.

Plaskett is now starting her second term in office. She is the fourth Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress, succeeding Ron de Lugo, Victor Frazer and Donna Christensen. Prior to that, she served as a Congressional staffer. As she spoke to the people of St. John she conveyed what she had learned from her working knowledge of Congress.

Representatives from the U.S. Insular areas, including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Marianna Islands and Guam do not have a vote on the floor of the House. So it’s up to Plaskett to figure out how to gain support from voting colleagues how to support measures that benefit the territory.

Plaskett explained at the town meeting how her background as a lawyer helped her win assignments where she prepares testifiers appearing before House committees and subcommittees.

She also said she’s using the early days of the 115th to build relationships with both Republicans and Democrats in caucuses and through committee assignments. This is something Plaskett called important as a new, potentially adversarial administration in the White House.

Her message at the town meeting to many constituent questions was that no one knows what to expect from the administration of President Donald Trump.

Here’s what the delegate had to say in her introductory remarks:

“I just wanted to give you guys the lay of the land, what we’re looking at in Washington, here in the Virgin Islands, what we’ve been working on, give you a glimpse of what we think is going to happen in Congress, in the upcoming year. And then we’ll open it up for questions.

I’ll be back for a longer period of time in April. Because this is the beginning of a new session, usually the first year is very heavily concentrated in Washington, where we’re working on legislation.

On Nov. 9, everybody woke up and we were like, ‘Okay … this is what we are going to look like.’ Some of us were like, ‘back to the office,’ some of us were like, ‘pack it up, we’re out of here,’ and then people began thinking about what the relationship was going to be like with a new administration that was coming in.

With both sides of the aisle, the Republicans and Democrats, there has been a lot of introspection, discussions. Democrats have been haggling over a lot of heated family dinner discussions at the table — moved, finally from the finger pointing to trying to figure out, realizing that you were pointing a finger at a person, they were pointing back at you — to really determining how we’re going to move forward.

The Republicans as well are thinking about how they’re going to move forward with having the Senate, both chambers of Congress, as well as the White House. That has created a lot of uncertainty for both sides of the aisle.

For myself, entering my sophomore term, I’m going to be on the same two committees. I’m going to be on the Agriculture Committee. Last year I was on two subcommittees — livestock and foreign agriculture. I’m going to remain on that one [foreign agriculture].

I will not be on nutrition as I was the last time. I will go to quite a number of those hearings. Now I’m on two other subcommittees. I’m on the commodity subcommittees of the House.

One of those subcommittees, I think, is very relevant to the people of the Virgin Islands because it deals with rural development and all of the rural development grants, small businesses loans, infrastructure, utility support, run through that particular commodities subcommittee.

On oversight and government reform, which is the second subcommittee that I sit on, that is chaired by Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).  I will be moving from a position of rehabilitating the witnesses on the stand to probably being the main cross examiner, the witnesses that come before us.

I am going to be the ranking member on the subcommittee of that committee. Oversight and Government has four subcommittees. I’m the ranking member of the Interior Subcommittee.

All matters related to the Interior report into the subcommittee where I’m the ranking member.

I’ve had several meetings with the chair of that subcommittee. His name is Blake Farenhold. He’s from Texas, and we, fortunately, have quite a bit of agreement on the types of hearings we are going to have.

March 1 will be our first subcommittee hearing of substance that is related to the Virgin Islands that we are going to bring in, and we are going to have witnesses to talk about permitting processes, Army Corp of Engineers, NOAA and National Marine Fisheries, as well as issues the Caribbean, particularly Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as well as some other areas have in the length of time it takes to get permits; the overlap between Army Corps, EPA, and NOAA in allowing our permits to move forward. So that should be a lively discussion.

We also agree to have a number of hearings on that subcommittee on the National Parks, which should also be interesting for us.

I sit also on the steering policy committee. Each side of the aisle has a steering policy committee that is chaired by the leaders of our caucuses. The Democratic Steering Policy Committee is Nancy Pelosi’s leadership committee. My first term, I was elected as the freshman representative by my class to be on that committee.

This time my region, the Virgin Islands, sits on the Deep South Region, as we call it — the Seventh Region, which includes the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the states that you think of like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. And we are lumped together and the members from that region elected me to be on this new policy committee.

What does shared policy do? The first two months in Congress we steer everybody into their committee assignments. We make the determinations of what committees people are going to be on.

How is that is helpful to us? Because people want to desperately to get on particular committees. They have to be nice to me, so I will vote for them, which means they owe me and I have bills that need sponsorship and need support.

Now for the rest of it — we sit around and kvetch with Nancy Pelosi about our policy, what do we think the Republican leadership is going to do. How are we going to get them to move away from something, what’s going to be our messaging, etcetera, etcetera.

I am actively involved in a number of caucuses. I am working very, very actively with Yvette Clarke who is a member from Brooklyn, and Carlos Carballo, who is a member from Miami, and Nia Love, who is a member from Utah, on the Caribbean Caucus.

We have a lot of new ambassadors from the Caribbean in London because many of our Caribbean brother and sister nations have changed leadership, have changed parties and structure. And so there are new ambassadors. They’re looking, first to see how we move things in Washington, how this administration will act — what does this mean for us?

So our caucus is working to try and get the Trump Administration to realize that CAFTA is not NAFTA and that they need to be careful about how they treat the Caribbean.

I am also very involved in the New Dems, which is considered the moderate, middle-of-the-road Democrats. On the Democrat side, there is the Progressive Caucus, the New Dems and the Blue Dogs.

On the New Dems, I am one of the chairs of the task force on infrastructure. We have had quite a number of meetings with Republicans. It’s called the Tuesday study group. They are moderate Republicans and we got with them to quickly determine one of the areas where we could work with them — some commonality, get some bills done before the administration causes us to be polarized and pull away from each other and never be able to speak to each other on the floor again.    

We also had some meetings with some of the senators, the moderate Senate who have had  meetings with Trump. They’ve come back to us with their assessment of what they think is going to move forward. The same with Republican Tuesday group.”

The delegate to Congress from the Virgin Islands said she will be connecting with the folks back home in April. Those meetings are expected to be with smaller groups with special interests, like veterans and farmers. More general town meetings, like the ones that took place Feb. 21 on St. Croix, Feb. 22 on St. John and Feb. 23 on St. Thomas, will likely be announced as well.