Isle delegation packs a punch with veterans and military
'Earmarks' help smaller states
WASHINGTON » Thanks to seniority, Hawaii's tiny four-person congressional delegation will get some respect this year.
Hawaii congressmen are running committees overseeing issues from NASA to the Internet, from regulating national parks and harbors and highways to guiding the Army and Air Force.
And even freshman Rep. Mazie Hirono will get more than the usual notice as she is one of only 73 women in Congress, one of two Buddhists and the only person in Congress to have immigrated from Japan.
ON ASSIGNMENTHonolulu Star-Bulletin Capitol Bureau Chief Richard Borreca will be filing reports from Washington, D.C., all this week on Hawaii's congressional delegation as the new Democratic majority in Congress takes power.
Here are the Hawaii delegation committee chairmanships and some of the future issues:
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka: The chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee is looking at using the committee to do more for veterans from the National Guard and Reserve.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie: The chairman of the Land and Air Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee wants to work on reconstituting the Army.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye: The chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is allowing political ally Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to be co-chairman -- a title Inouye held when the Republicans were in power.
Congressional clout for a small state is either "feast or famine," says Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University expert on Congress and co-editor of "Congress Reconsidered."
Hawaii, with the Democrats in the majority, is definitely set to feast, if for no other reason than Washington bureaucrats are now more likely to see a Hawaii face across the committee table.
"People in executive agencies automatically take into account who they will have to deal with on the Hill," said Oppenheimer.
While other committees such as appropriations and foreign relations have higher profiles and other lawmakers have more prominent leadership roles, the 50th state is far from last in clout.
For instance, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, 67, says he has "been waiting 12 years" to lead a congressional committee. Today he is running the Land and Air Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee.
"We have to constitute the Army. Very simply, it has to be reconstituted. You have heard this used by others, 'The Army is broken,'" Abercrombie said in an interview here.
"There is not a single combat brigade, battalion or unit that is ready for a combat mission in terms of the highest levels that we assign," Abercrombie said.
Abercrombie, who was a Vietnam War protester at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s, says the Army needs to grow larger to improve.
For sheer number of panels commanded, Sen. Daniel Akaka, 82, is the winner, holding the chairmanships of four Senate committees or subcommittees.
Akaka runs the Veterans Affairs Committee; the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management; the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Historic Preservation and Recreation; and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.
The biggest committee is Veterans Affairs, and Akaka is looking at using the committee to do more for veterans from the National Guard and Reserve. He notes that because of the Iraq war, Guard members are now suffering serious casualties. But Akaka also has plans for changes in the National Park Service, saying there is a need for money for upkeep and more pressure for "cultural parks."
Of course, the alpha dog in the Hawaii pack is Sen. Daniel Inouye, 82, who in seniority ranks behind only Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
Inouye will run the sprawling Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Last year, he had the unique position of co-chairman of the committee when the Republicans ran Congress, and his political ally, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chaired the committee.
Now Stevens is co-chairman, but responsibility for the committee's decisions falls to Hawaii's senior senator.
Inouye and Stevens, 85, also serve as the octogenarian "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" on the defense subcommittee of the Senate's Appropriations Committee.
The subcommittee funneled more than $622 million in military spending into Hawaii last year. The total 2007 defense appropriation bill is $469.7 billion, including nondiscretionary costs.
Included in the billions are many of the so-called "earmarks," which are appropriations slipped into money bills at the last minute to help a congressional member's own district.
During last year's election, Democrats criticized the spending and promised reforms, but Hawaii's delegation wants to preserve some form of "earmarking."
Inouye said the money has resulted in funds for important military projects such as the C-17 aircraft and the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Akaka said that some abuses in earmarking should be curbed, but generally they help small states such as Hawaii.
While saying he is against the way earmarks have been used, Akaka noted that they serve a purpose.
"We don't want to delete the earmarks. In the past they have been sticking earmarks in at the last minute, avoiding committees, without floor action. This was with the Republicans in charge," Akaka said. "But earmarks help a locality like Hawaii."
Abercrombie said there is a simple political benefit for changing the way earmarks are used. If the appropriation is attached to a specific person and not anonymously buried in a billion-dollar budget, more politicians will get credit.
"I always point out to people that the projects and programs coming into Hawaii have more than doubled since I came into Congress," Abercrombie said.
"Now unless you want to believe that Sen. Inouye has gotten smarter in the last 15 years than he was in the first 30, it has got to have something to do with the team (of Hawaii congressional representatives) operating," Abercrombie said.