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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Coping with the Possibility That the Future May Be More Dire Than We Think


From our files: Lyndon Johnson being congratulated by John F. Kennedy and Inouye shortly after the Vice-Presidential nomination had been made, from the June/July 1961 issue of Paradise of the Pacific, HONOLULU's predecessor.

After a loss, it’s usually best to encourage grievers to be optimistic, to see the future as manageable. After a while, though, it might be time to admit that the situation may well be more complex and dire. So while I’ve said things may not be as bad as we fear, I have to walk you through the possibility that things could be much worse—for reasons that go far beyond the loss of Dan Inouye.

There used to be an adage in the Senate that there were three parties: Democrats, Republicans and Appropriators. Byrd, Stevens and Inouye were certainly Appropriators in Good Standing, but they may also have been the last of the breed. Over Inouye’s objections, Congress outlawed earmarks a couple of years ago. The earmarks process may have been flawed, but it addressed a question that no legislator can ignore regardless of the rules: “How can I get money for a worthwhile project in my community?” Legislators, including Inouye himself, have already found other ways to get federal funds to their constituencies. An earmark may be a guilty pleasure, but it’s a pleasure too intense to be ignored.

What will really stifle the power of senators like Inouye are not rule changes. By far, more important are structural, national economic problems that, by all indications, will get worse.

One of Inouye’s last acts was taking part in the debate about the fiscal cliff. Even though Congress somehow stumbled through that crisis, it will hardly make a dent in the United States’ fundamental problem: The country’s needs are going up, but the amount of federal money being collected to meet these needs is going down. In 10 years, the percentage of the federal budget available for discretionary spending will be half of what it is today. Investments in infrastructure are decreasing, but, by any measure, the need for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure increases. The federal budget for basic scientific research is a small fraction of what it was 20 years ago. State governments will not be able to pick up the slack for any of this.

If Inouye were still in the Senate a few years from now, he would surely have faced increasing demands on a much smaller pie. By then, even a kingpin senator’s funding pleasures, guilty or otherwise, would have become fewer, not because he had lost power, but because some forces are too powerful even for a person like Inouye to overcome.

Inouye comes home to lie in state at the State Capitol building, Dec. 22, 2012.

Photo: David Croxford

Coping Mechanisms: What Our New Senators Can Learn from Dan Inouye

By now, Inouye’s and Akaka’s replacements are in Washington: Mazie Hirono, elected to serve a full six-year term, and Brian Schatz, hand-picked by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to leap from the lieutenant govenor’s office to Inouye’s seat until a special election can be held for it in 2014. They have their work cut out for them.

Though neither of Hawaii’s new senators have been assigned to the powerful Appropriations  Committee that Inouye chaired, both got plum assignments on committees that are very important to Hawaii. Hirono  is on the Armed Services Committee. Schatz is on Commerce Energy and Indian Affairs, a committee that gives him the chance to follow up  on his concerns with global warming.  The Indian affairs work of the committee also gives Schatz a chance to maintain an alliance with the Alaska delegation on Native issues.

There is no substitute for seniority in getting and keeping plum assignments. Inouye used to say that, early in his congressional career, he decided the best way for him to be influential was to keep getting elected. That is certainly the way to become Senate Appropriations Committee chair. Byrd and Inouye served longer than any other U.S. senator in history. Stevens was in the Senate for 40 years. Seniority, advocacy and control over appropriations—the Iron Triangle of Influence.

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