WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dan Inouye and Dan Akaka built up a lot of goodwill in their decades in the U.S. Senate — and Hawaii continues to live off their favor even after they’ve both left the nation’s Capitol.

Late last week, Hawaii’s freshmen senators and representative landed choice committee appointments overseeing issues crucial to the state — military, transportation, Native Hawaiian affairs, among others. Committee assignments mean everything to a state — the ability to steer national policy and direct federal dollars home.

Last month, Hawaii went from the state holding the most seniority as a delegation in the Senate to the state with the least seniority. Inouye’s death ended nearly 50 years in the Senate, and Akaka retired after 22 years.

And while the passing of Inouye created an economic cliff that Hawaii officials fear will hit the state harder than even the fiscal cliff, the strong showing by Hawaii’s delegation on committee assignments could be seen as a reprieve.

A closer look at the events that unfolded Friday night show that Hawaii emerged as the big winner compared to any other state, due in large part to back room lobbying by the Inouye and Akaka staffs, sources told Civil Beat. The committees the delegation was assigned, altogether, were particularly designed for maintaining the stream of federal money that means so much to Hawaii.

Together the new delegation is in a unique position to coordinate efforts from both chambers of Congress on committees key to Hawaiian economic and political policy priorities.

“I am confident that our entire delegation knows what is at stake with Sen. Akaka and Sen. Inouye no longer representing us,” Rep. Colleen Hanabusa told Civil Beat in an interview late Saturday. “I am prepared to commit every ounce of my energy and every bit of my experience and abilities for the benefit of our state. Our senators served us with humility and devotion; we will need to do the same, and we each need to be all-in. Service to our state needs to be our only focus.”

Freshmen Don’t Usually Get Their First Choice

The new committee assignments announced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid contained only six changes — and all of them directly related to Hawaii. Four of the new seats were taken by Hawaii, including a reshuffle of assignments between Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, and the two others were Hawaii seats given up in exchange.

The behind-the-scenes horse trading for committee assignments in the Senate is very competitive, and decided entirely by party leaders. Each senator is allowed four committee requests, ranked in order of preference by the senator and each committee categorized in order of its importance by the Senate.

“Sen. Reid assigns the committees with a descending rank of ‘super a’, ‘a’.’b’, and ‘c’. Each Senator is allowed one ‘super a’ committee request,” said the chief of staff of one Senate Committee.

Both new Hawaii senators were granted all their top choices, considered unusual for freshman senators. Hirono was given a seat on her top choice, the powerful Armed Services Committee and Schatz was given his top choice of the influential Commerce Committee, which controls maritime and transportation, and Indian Affairs issues, aides to both senators confirmed to Civil Beat.

On the House side, incoming Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was given a coveted slot on both the Foreign Relations Committee and Homeland Security Committee. Hanabusa retained her seat on Armed Services and Natural Resources, the latter committee which controls the maritime, oceans, and Native Hawaiian portfolios.

In the reshuffle, Hirono was given the Armed Services assignment for Alaska Sen. Mark Begich giving up his Armed Services seat in a trade. Begich was given Inouye’s vacant seat on the Appropriations Committee.

When Begich was first elected four years ago, Appropriations was one of the committees he’d requested to serve on. With Inouye’s passing, Begich was next in line for the spot.

After Inouye’s death, Begich changed his Facebook photo to one of him and Inouye and spoke of the strong joint effort and cooperation between the two states elected federal representatives, according to the Associated Press.

“Our relationship with Hawaii is only going to get stronger,” Begich told the AP. “Alaska and Hawaii will always be a unique team, because of our unique separation from the mainland.”

In the other changes announced late Friday, Schatz took Inouye’s seats on both the Indian Affairs and Commerce Committees.

Hawaii gave up one of the two seats it held on the Indian Affairs Committee and one seat on the Rules Committee held by Inouye, but the sum gains made by the delegation were substantial and unusual.

While Schatz’s three committee appointments are not as high profile as Hirono’s, there is a strong argument that they are equally as influential when seen through the prism of specifically targeting Hawaii top economic and policy issues.

“I could not have asked for better assignments for the needs and future of our State,” Schatz said about the three committees in a statement released Friday night.

In an interview late Saturday with Civil Beat, Hanabusa said, “I think that we need to look at committee assignments in terms of how we can directly serve our state’s needs and support our core values. I’m proud to be serving on Natural Resources, which covers a number of areas critical to our state, including fisheries, oceans, and environmental regulations… (and) Indian and Native Affairs, including Native Hawaiian issues, which are very important to me.”

“Armed Services is, of course, a critical committee for Hawaii,” Hanabusa said. “With changes in our nation’s defense posture coming as we end our combat operations in Afghanistan and refocus on the Asia/Pacific region, we need to continue advocating for Hawaii as a primary forward position in the region. I think we know that some level of reduction in defense spending is inevitable, and it is going to take a focused, effective effort to make sure our state continues to receive the level of investment we need to support our local economy and continue to provide opportunities to local workers.”

Nate Thayer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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