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The Guam Legislature is the lawmaking body of the government of Guam, and has been in existence since the passage of the Organic Act of Guam in 1950. Major events that have affected the legislature since then include the change in politics from a one-party system in the beginning (the Popular Party) to the two-party system of today (the Democrats and Republicans), as well as a reduction in the number of senators from 21 to 15.
Organic Act creates legislature
Before the passage of the Organic Act, all authority of the government of Guam lay with the governor of Guam, who had been a naval governor until just before the passage of the act. The predecessor of the legislature was the Guam Congress, a body of local officials who had no power except to make recommendations to the governor, which he could then use at his discretion. In effect, the Guam Congress was merely an advisory body.
On 23 May 1950, the US Congress passed the Organic Act of Guam, mainly due to cries of injustice from the people of Guam, a protest walkout of the Guam Congress in 1949 and national media attention to the walkout.
The Organic Act created a unicameral (one-house) legislative body of not more than twenty-one senators, along with an appointed civilian governor. The senators were elected every two years, and were paid $15 for each day the legislature was in session (this was later removed, and as of 2019 senators make about $55,000 per year). Only two eligibility requirements were imposed:
- a candidate must be at least 25 years old, and;
- a candidate must have lived on Guam for at least five years preceding the sitting of the legislature in which he or she seeks to become a member.
The legislature was granted the lawmaking powers of Guam, subject to the approval or veto of the governor, while the legislature could override the governor’s veto with a vote of 2/3 of its members. In the original Organic Act, the governor had the option of sending an overridden veto to the US president for final action. This provision was used four times by governors, and each time the president upheld the governor’s veto, until the provision was removed by the Elective Governor Bill in 1968, which gave the citizens of Guam the right to elect a civilian governor. The first civilian governor was Carlos Camacho who began his term in 1970.
The lawmaking power of the legislature is not absolute, however. The US Congress reserved the power to annul laws passed by the legislature at any time, although it hasn’t used that power, to date.
The first election under the new legislature was on 7 November 1950, with about 65 percent of eligible voters participating in the election. While the Organic Act provided that the legislature may have up to 21 members, local officials decided to have the maximum amount of seats allowed by the act, and the 21 candidates who received the highest number of votes were declared the winners.
The elected members first convened as the 11th Guam Congress, taking its number from previous congresses. But the newly elected members felt that this new legislative body deserved a different name, and in one of its first acts, it changed its name from Guam Congress to Guam Legislature, and became the First Guam Legislature.
I Mina Uno Na Liheslaturan Guåhan/ the 1st Guam Legislature was a busy one, passing major laws such as: a uniform wage law eliminating higher wages for off-island government recruits; the abolishment of customs duties; the establishment of the Territorial College of Guam (which later became the College of Guam, and then the University of Guam); the establishment of financial aid for Guam students going to college; the reorganization of the island court system; the establishment of a merit system for government of Guam employees; the Government Employees Retirement law; and the establishment of the Civil Defense Agency, the Shipping Commission, the Territorial Parole System and the Public Utility Agency.
Members of the First Guam Legislature were:
- Vicente B. Bamba
- Baltazar J. Bordallo
- Eduardo T. Calvo
- Antonio C. Cruz
- Antonio S.N. Duenas
- Leon D. Flores
- Jose D. Leon Guerrero
- Manuel F. Leon Guerrero
- Francisco B. Leon Guerrero
- Pedro B. Leon Guerrero
- Manuel U. Lujan
- Jesus C. Okiyama
- Frank D. Perez
- Joaquin A. Perez
- Joaquin C. Perez
- Jesus R. Quinene
- Ignacio P. Quitugua
- Florencio T. Ramirez
- James T. Sablan
- Joaquin S. Santos
- Antonio B. Won Pat. Won Pat was elected speaker
The first three Guam Legislatures were composed almost entirely of members of the Popular Party of Guam, with a few independent members. But in the beginning of I Mina Tres Na Liheslaturan Guåhan/the 3rd Guam Legislature, a split among Popular Party members occurred over who would be speaker. Eight Popular Party senators joined three independents and elected F.B. Leon Guerrero as speaker instead of Antonio B. Won Pat, who had been speaker of the first two legislatures.
The eight Popular Party senators who split off decided to form the Territorial Party of Guam just before the 1956 election, and they included prominent politicians such as FB Leon Guerrero, Eduardo T. Calvo, Agueda Johnston, Cynthia Torres, Lagrimas L.G. Untalan, Frank D. Perez and former Island Judge Vicente C. Reyes. The Popular Party campaigned against them as the “party of the rich,” and against what it called the “familia system,” and it struck a cord with the electorate.
The Popular Party won all 21 seats in I Mina Kuatro Na Liheslaturan Guåhan/ the 4th Guam Legislature (termed a “blackjack” victory after the card game), and went on to dominate all elections until 1964, when the Territorials won their only majority. The Popular Party, which had changed its name to the Democratic Party of Guam in 1960, took all 21 seats in the 1966 election.
Following this defeat, the Territorial Party soon dissolved. At the same time, only a few weeks after the 1960 election, the Republican Party of Guam was formed, and soon drew most of the Territorial Party members. With the establishment of the Republican Party, the Legislature now had a two-party race.
By 1970, the Republicans gained five seats in the Legislature, and then took the majority in the 1974 election and held it until 1982. The Democrats won the majority back in 1982, and held it until 1996. The Republicans held the majority in elections except 2002, when they were weakened by five of their strongest candidates running for higher office. They lost the majority in 2008 and the Democrats have held it since.
Back seat to gubernatorial race
In 1968, the US Congress passed the Elective Governor Bill, giving Guam voters the right to elect their governor for the first time in their history. The first elections were set for 1970, and the island became obsessed with the gubernatorial election. While the Republicans united around incumbent appointed Governor Carlos G. Camacho and his runningmate Kurt S. Moylan, the Democrats were split into three camps. The three nightly Democratic village meetings drew upwards of 5,000 people each night.
In this fervor for the gubernatorial election, the legislative race took a back seat, and it has been so ever since. The most popular candidates run for governor, leaving a void filled by newcomers. Changes in the majority of the legislature by the Republicans and Democrats have usually occurred when one party is weakened by several of its strongest senatorial candidates running for governor.
In addition, the legislature is dominated in gubernatorial election years by senators maneuvering for position to run for governor, passing bills to get them in the spotlight and seeking the support of their colleagues for their gubernatorial candidacy. Sessions are often filled with grandstanding in those years – even more so than usual.
Home of the legislature
The Guam Legislature was housed for many years in the Guam Legislature Building in Hagåtña, which is directly across the street from the Hagåtña Cathedral-Basilica, adjacent to the Guam Museum at Skinner Plaza and the Plaza de España. Originally, the building also served as the Island District Court and the Territorial Court of Guam. After the judicial branch relocated to their own, new building in 1968 within the capital, the building became solely the legislative building.
The architecture of the building was considered beautiful, but lack of maintenance over the years and general aging led to the Guam Legislature’s decision in the late 1980s to build a new, high-rise legislative building. The design of the building was ambitious, costing many millions of dollars, and an outraged public questioned the spending priorities of its senators.
The senators moved out of the Guam Legislature Building in 1990 and rented another Hagåtña building as a temporary home. But because of the public outrage, and a general shortage of funds due to Guam’s economic recession, the new legislative building never got built, and the Guam Legislature remained in its temporary home for 26 years.
In 2016, however, the Guam Preservation Trust and the Guam Legislature restored and rehabilitated the old Guam Legislature Building. In 2006 it was listed on the Guam and National Registers of Historic Places. Before undergoing any rehabilitation efforts, a structural analysis, Historic Structures Report and architectural and engineering plans had to be completed. Rehabilitation efforts were completed at the end of 2016.
The building preserves Guam’s history but also makes way for the future. The formal chambers and public areas remain intact, but two new wings have been added for legislators and staff. The signature mahogany paneling was restored. Additionally environmentally friendly materials and efficient use of water and power generated by rooftop solar panels were added.
Election into office
Senators elected into office win seats by popular vote from qualified Guam voters. Elections were conducted by district for about four terms, until the 1982 election for I Mina Disi siete Na Liheslaturan Guåhan/the 17th Guam Legislature when at-large elections were ordered as a result of a court challenge by late Senator Gene Ramsey.
One of the most major changes in the Guam Legislature since its inception was the reduction of its members to fifteen senators. As the Organic Act only sets a maximum of twenty-one senators, the Legislature has always had the power to reduce its members below that maximum. The reduction was proposed by Mark Forbes (speaker of I Mina Bente Ocho Na Liheslaturan Guåhan the 28th Guam Legislature) when he first ran for office in 1994, with the popular reasoning that the Legislature was too large and that Guam’s small population doesn’t need such a large number of senators. However, he dropped the reduction bill after getting elected due to opposition from his colleagues.
Forbes resurrected the reduction of the Legislature from twenty-one to fifteen members before the 1996 election, in the form of an initiative to be approved by voters, and it passed soundly. Since it was passed in the 1996 election, the reduction to fifteen senators didn’t occur until the 1998 election, when the Republicans won a “super majority” of ten out of fifteen members.
During I Mina’ Bente Ocho na Liheslaturan Guåhan/the 28th Guam Legislature, Republicans retook the majority from Democrats, and successfully retained a slim majority of eight to seven during the following elections in 2006 to seat I Mina’ Bente Nuebi na Liheslaturan Guåhan/the 29th Guam Legislature.
In late 2007, with the death of long-time Senator Antonio “Tony” Unpingco, a special election was held to fill in the vacant seat. Democrat, former senator and Supreme Court Chief Justice Benjamin “B.J.” Cruz, won the election, effectively switching the majority eight to seven in the Democrats favor.
On 31 January 2008 the new Democratic majority challenged the Republican leadership and put Sen. Judith Won Pat in place as Speaker, the first time a woman was chosen as the leader of the Guam Legislature. She is the daughter of the first legislative speaker, Antonio B. Won Pat. The Democrats have maintained the majority ever since.
In November 2016, seven incumbent senators, many with a long history at the Guam Legislature including Speaker Won Pat, were not re-elected, bringing in a new crop of senators. The Democrats, however, maintained the majority. Benjamin J. Cruz was chosen as Speaker.
The newly elected body was sworn in at the newly renovated Guam Congress Building on 2 January 2017.
Women take the majority in 2019
On 7 January 2019 the 35th Guam Legislature was sworn in with a historic super majority of women elected. Ten of the fifteen senators are women. Tina Muña-Barnes, a former senator, was chosen at the Speaker. The Guam Legislature had 10 Democrats and five Republicans. Five of the senators are serving for the first time, two served as senators in the past and are returning to office, and eight are incumbent senators.
36th Guam Legislature
The 36th Guam Legislature was sworn into office 4 January 2021. Senator Therese Terlaje, a Democrat and the highest vote getter, was chosen by her colleagues to serve as the Speaker. The people of Guam elected eight women and seven men to serve this term. The Democrats held the majority, with eight members. The Republicans have seven members.
All the senators are experienced lawmakers. The 36th Guam Legislature includes:
- Therese Terlaje
- Telena Nelson
- Joe San Agustin
- Amanda Shelton
- Tina Muña Barnes
- Clynton Ridgell
- Sabina Perez
- Jose Terlaje
- James Moylan
- Mary Torres
- Vicente “Tony” Ada
- Telo Taitague
- Frank Blas Jr.
- Christopher Duenas
- Joanne Brown
The 36th Legislative leadership is as follows:
Speaker: Therese Terlaje
Vice-Speaker: Tina Muna Barnes
Legislative Secretary: Amanda Shelton
Committee on Rules: Tina Muna Barnes
Majority Leader: Telena Nelson
Assistant Majority Leader: Amanda Shelton
Majority Whip: Sabina Perez
Assistant Majority Whip: Joe S. San Agustin
Minority Leader: James Moylan
Minority Whip: Frank Blas Jr.
Committee on General Government Operations, Appropriations and Housing: Senator Joe S. San Agustin.
Committee on Education, Self-Determination, Historic Preservation, Infrastructure, Border Safety, Federal and Foreign Affairs, and Maritime Transportation: Senator Telena Nelson.
Committee on Air Transportation, Parks, Tourism, Higher Education, and the Advancement of Women, Youth and Senior Citizens: Senator Amanda Shelton.
Committee on Economic Development, Agriculture, Power and Energy Utilities, and the Arts: Senator Clynt Ridgell.
Committee on Rules, Public Accountability, Human Resources, The Guam Buildup, Hagåtña Revitalization, Regional Affairs, Public Libraries, Telecommunications, and Technology: Vice-Speaker Tina Muna-Barnes.
Committee on Public Safety, Emergency Response, Military and Veterans Affairs, Mayors Council, and Public Transit: Senator Pedo Terlaje.
Committee on the Environment, Revenue and Taxation, Labor, Procurement, and Statistics, Research and Planning: Senator Sabina Perez.
Committee on Health, Land, Justice and Culture: Speaker Therese Terlaje.
Speakers of the Guam Legislature
- Antonio B. Won Pat, Popular Party (1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Legislatures)
- Francisco B. Leon Guerrero, Popular Party (3rd Legislature)
- Carlos P. Taitano, Territorial Party (8th Legislature)
- Joaquin C. Arriola, Democrat (9th and 10th Legislatures)
- Florencio T. Ramirez, Democrat (11th and 12th Legislatures)
- Joseph F. Ada, Republican (13th, 14th Legislatures)
- Tomas V.C. Tanaka, Republican (15th and 16th Legislatures)
- Carl T.C. Gutierrez, Democrat (17th and 18th Legislatures)
- Franklin J.A. Quitugua, Democrat (19th Legislature)
- Joe T. San Agustin, Democrat (20th, 21st and 22nd Legislatures)
- Don Parkinson, Democrat (23nd Legislature)
- Antonio Unpingco, Republican (24th through 26th Legislatures)
- Vicente “Ben” Pangelinan, Democrat (27th Legislature)
- Mark Forbes, Republican (28th and 29th Legislatures)
- Judith “Judi” T. Won Pat (29th, 30th, 31st, 32nd and 33rd Legislatures)
- Benjamin J. Cruz and Therese Terlaje (34th Legislature)
- Tina Muña-Barnes (35th Legislature)
- Therese Terlaje (36th Legislature)
For further reading
Dizon, Joe S. Political Parties and Elections in Guam. Hagåtña: Guam Research Associates, 1982.
Guam Legislature. “The 36th Guam Legislature.”
Rogers, Robert. Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1995.
Sanchez, Pedro C. Guahan Guam: The History of Our Island. Hagåtña: Sanchez Publishing House, 1987.
United States. The Organic Act of Guam and Related Federal Laws Affecting the Governmental Structure of Guam through June 11, 2000. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 2002.