The first and second Commissions on Self-Determination

In 1980, Public Law 15-128 was passed creating the Commission on Self-Determination for the People of Guam. The Commission was tasked with ascertaining the desire of the people of Guam regarding the island’s political status and to represent Guam in status negotiations with the US government. The Commission also had to establish task forces for the different political status options; to conduct an educational campaign; and to organize a plebiscite.

The Commission defined Chamorros as “all those born on Guam before 1 August 1950, and their descendants.” The definition created controversy among various groups on Guam, for not being inclusive of other people living on Guam, but also for not being definitive enough in acknowledging Chamorros as a specific, distinct ethnic group. The question of who is the “self” in “self-determination” became the focus of the Commission, and was important because it defined who would or should be allowed to vote on Guam’s political future.

Nevertheless, in January 1982, only a small percentage of Guam voters participated in the first plebiscite, with commonwealth and statehood receiving the largest number of votes. A runoff plebiscite was held in September, coinciding with the primary elections, and commonwealth received overwhelming support.

A year later in 1983, Governor Ricardo Bordallo, along with other delegates from Guam, met with representatives from the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee in Albuquerque, New Mexico to discuss a strategy that would help advance a change in political status for Guam in Congress. The Guam delegates agreed to draft a Commonwealth Act to be submitted to Congress for review. The Guam Legislature then established in January 1984 the Second Commission on Self-Determination with members from all three branches of government and both political parties. The Commission was tasked with drafting a Federal-Territorial relations act (the Guam Commonwealth Act) which would replace the 1950 Organic Act and establish Commonwealth status for Guam. Four working drafts were drawn up, but Working Draft No. 4 was completed in 1984 and sent to Washington officials. However, Working Draft No. 4 did not address the important issue of Chamorro self-determination and indigenous rights. Calls by local activist groups for the draft to address Chamorro self-determination, as well as opposition by Filipino and stateside residents to proposed immigration controls, made the draft a political hot potato. By the time of the final drafting in late 1985, the proposed Commonwealth Act had become controversial in both Guam and the nation’s capital.

The Legislature was unable to set up a plebiscite vote on the Commonwealth Act immediately. The year 1986 was a gubernatorial election year, and the legislature requested a plebiscite for April. However, the plebiscite was delayed, pending changes in key legislative committees. Considerations of changing the voting format—from an article-by-article vote to one that involved the whole act—also delayed setting the plebiscite date. A lawsuit to further delay the plebiscite was filed but dismissed, and voting took place in August 1987. Two of the articles were rejected and rewritten, and a special election was held in November. With the approval of the majority of voters, the Guam Commonwealth Act was ready to be sent for approval by the US government.

However, beginning in 1988 up through 1997, Guam’s congressional delegates Ben Blaz and Robert Underwood tried to get the Commonwealth Act passed in Congress. From the 100th to the 105th Congresses, the Guam Commonwealth Act failed to receive approval and the political aspirations of Guam as represented by the Commonwealth Act were never realized.