After Inouye: Hawaii's most powerful representative is gone. What happens now?

Predictions of fiscal doom abound in the wake of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death, but how realistic are they? What should Hawaii’s newest senators do to start regaining the stature held by Inouye and the recently retired Sen. Dan Akaka?


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Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sept. 7, 1924 to Dec. 17, 2012

photo: mark arbeit

In the first few days after Inouye’s death, whenever I mentioned I was writing a story about coping with his loss, people would argue with me, as if the very premise of coping was incomprehensible. Their reactions were echoes of grief. When we grieve over a death, we first feel an overwhelming sense of loss. “How can we ever survive without him?”

Understandably, the language of loss and grief has dominated our conversations over Inouye’s death. A Star-Advertiser eulogy called it “incalculable.” That description accurately reflects the respect the people of Hawaii have for him, the despair they feel and the fears of a future without him. The word “incalculable” embraces a lot: the loss of seniority, the amount of money that will no longer be available, the loss of political connections.

But that is just one side of the story. Coping with the impact of the senator’s death requires us to take a fuller look. Otherwise, our current feeling of powerlessness will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, ending in paralysis. Hawaii can’t afford that kind of paralysis. Politics does not allow for such a luxury.

We need to take steps toward coping. The first is to calculate the incalculable as best we can, so that we have a better idea of what to expect. What will be the bottom-line monetary impact of Inouye’s death? Also, we need to confront the possibility that the future may be so grim that, even if the senator were still alive, his power would no longer have been nearly enough. Finally, we need to make sure that Hawaii’s two new U.S. senators immediately adopt strategies that help them gain influence. To do this, they can learn valuable lessons from Inouye’s career, to better protect Hawaii’s interests no matter what the future brings.

Confronting the Money Question

Recently, the state’s budget director, Kalbert Young, warned the Hawaii state Legislature’s money committees that the impact of Inouye’s death could be dire. According to Young, the impact is “immeasurable. It’s like trying to find out which way the wind’s going to blow tomorrow.” He is right, and it’s prudent, especially for a budget director, to assume the state will get less money, but that is a far cry from what seems to be the prevailing sentiment: that the spigot of federal monies will quickly run dry.

The experiences of the states of the previous two Senate Appropriations chairs, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Robert Byrd (D-WVA), suggest that things might not turn out so badly. Alaska, West Virginia and Hawaii regularly rank near the top in federal money per capita. Post Byrd, who died in office at age 92 in 2010, West Virginia continues to rank in the top 10. As for Alaska, according to a report by Civil Beat, during the last year that Stevens chaired the committee before losing a bid for reelection, federal funding to Alaska increased from $2.5 billion to a little over $3 billion. Much of that increase was one-time stimulus money, but, in 2012, three years after Stevens left the committee, Alaska continued to get almost the same amount of funds without the stimulus boost. According to Steven W. Haycox, a University of Alaska Anchorage scholar, “Ted Stevens’ death was not as significant economically as many people feared, though there was some impact.” A recent study by the Anchorage-based Institute of Social and Economic Research found that federal funding to Alaska is no longer growing for either defense or grants, which are the two largest categories of the state’s federal funds, but that “the special characteristics that have historically kept Alaska near the top of the state rankings for funds per capita will continue to guarantee a strong role for federal dollars in Alaska.”

Hawaii shares two characteristics that have cushioned Alaska’s blow: a strong military presence and the existence of a group of people unique to the state. In my conversations about coping, people constantly mentioned the vulnerability of defense money. They often use the Pearl Harbor Shipyard, Hawaii’s largest employer with more than 4,000 civilian employees, as the prime example. But what has happened with the Pearl Harbor Shipyard over the past few years shows how the Alaska military cushion might also work for Hawaii. In 2005, a government committee looking to shut down unnecessary military facilities raised the possibility of closing that shipyard. Inouye, of course, led the battle to save it, but people still worried. Six years later, the government broke ground for a new $16 million production services support facility at the shipyard. Now, it’s always possible that the shipyard could still be closed, but a big, recent investment in infrastructure is a formidable cushion.

People may not realize the extent to which Inouye championed Native Hawaiian concerns, steering, collectively, hundreds of millions over the years to everything from the Polynesian Voyaging Society to educational programs in the University of Hawaii system and Chaminade University. Where legislation was needed more than money, he used his clout then, too, authoring the Native American Languages Act of 1990, which provided the legal underpinning for today’s Hawaiian-language immersion schools.

Native Hawaiian services may have a different sort of cushion. Over the past few years, Inouye worked exceptionally hard to develop networks of support for Native Hawaiians that would continue after he left office. For example, Inouye helped foster links between the U.S. Department of Education and Native Hawaiian groups on contentious funding issues. During a 2012 meeting with Office of Hawaiian Affairs and other Native Hawaiian organizations in what OHA called his last request to that organization, the senator stressed the need to build such coalitions. OHA’s statement about Inouye’s death emphasized this strategy: “To honor his [Inouye’s] wish and his legacy, we intend to continue our efforts to build strategic partnerships that empower Hawaiians and strengthen Hawaii.”

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