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?

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.”


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.


For Hawaii, that triangle is gone and won’t be back for a long time, if ever. But then, Inouye himself did not suddenly go from chopped liver to powerhouse. He accrued power in calculated ways, over time. Inouye first came to Congress in 1954, as the Territory of Hawaii’s only member of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the first things he did was look for influential mentors, and he chose the chairs of the committees that had jurisdiction over statehood. He also sought out Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House, who was one of the most powerful politicians in the United States at that time. Inouye loved to tell the story about Rayburn reassuring the rookie legislator that Rayburn would always remember him, because, as Rayburn put it, how many other one-armed Japanese legislators were there? Inouye told these stories in the modest, self-deprecating way he liked to talk about himself, but the stories had a greater significance for him. They were object lessons about the importance of making connections.

Brian Schatz was appointed to fill Inouye’s seat until 2014, over Inouye’s preference for Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Photo: Courtesy Office of Brian Schatz

Inouye followed the same strategy when he moved to the Senate, soon catching Lyndon Johnson’s eye. Early in his career, Inouye had the ears of two of the most powerful politicians in America, not bad for a still-young guy from Hawaii.

Throughout his career, Inouye mastered what Donald Matthews, in his book U.S. Senators and Their World, called the Senate’s “folkways,” the things that make senators influential over time: Freshmen senators should be seen but not heard. Focus on nitty-gritty legislative work and do it out of the spotlight. Specialize. Show courtesy—don’t make political disagreements personal. Be reciprocal—trade votes and exchange favors. Institutional patriotism—be loyal to the Senate as an institution. Dampen any larger political ambitions that you might have.

Those norms defined Inouye’s career, as they did Byrd’s. Byrd and Inouye were very different people, but they were both recognized as senators through and through who fully embodied those folkways. Each became what you might call a Senate Person. Today’s Senate is more partisan, less civil and clubby than it was when Matthews wrote about it. Nevertheless, these old folkways remain strong.

Inouye’s career offers these lessons for the state’s new senators: (1) getting influence is a long-term project that you have to begin on day one; (2) without making a big fuss about yourself, seek out influential mentors; (3) set becoming a Senate Person as your goal; and 4) remember that, if you do these things, you will begin to have influence well before you have much seniority. Let’s hope that Hawaii’s senators have already begun to abide by these lessons. The strategies will not have immediate, dramatic payoffs. They are investments for the future.

Neal Milner is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. He is a political analyst for KITV.