Editor’s note: The nation’s capital is a long way from Hawaii, both physically and culturally. The ability to keep tabs on Hawaii’s elected officials in Washington is part of what prompted Civil Beat to open a bureau in the district. But we want to take you even closer to the action on Capitol Hill.
We’ve asked each of Hawaii’s congressional delegates to let us spend a day with them. Our next stop is 1st Congressional District Rep. Colleen Hanabusa‘s office. (Read a related story about our day with Rep. Mazie Hirono.)
WASHINGTON — Democratic Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa can’t remember the last time she cried. That may be in part because the congresswoman and former Hawaii Senate president lives up to her tough reputation, but it’s also because she’s so often laughing.
That, and talking.
Hanabusa can talk and talk and talk. She almost always waves her hands as she speaks, a habit that makes it difficult to take a candid photograph of her that isn’t blurry.
But it’s a fitting quality. Ten months into her stint in Congress, the 60-year-old Hanabusa is constantly on the move.
Minute Maid orange juice in hand, Hanabusa is speaking with a pair of legislative aides about the day ahead.
As they brief her, the congresswoman jumps in often with questions and decisive comments. The current caps on how much fish can be caught in Hawaii are “crazy,” she says. The military’s definition of corrosion — this comes up in a discussion of a temporarily grounded fleet of F-22s — is “unbelievably broad.”
She fidgets with her pearl earrings, and occasionally leans her face into her hands. In a lot of ways, Hanabusa has the demeanor of a professional sports coach, which is the way many of her staff members treat her. To them, she’s simply “boss,” which they say in the same familiar yet respectful way that athletes say “coach.”
She’s also shorter than most of those around her, even with a boost from the clogs she wears (that’s another quality she shares with coaches who are often dwarfed by their team members).
Hanabusa’s office is clean and sparsely decorated but less bare than it once was. She is coming up on her one-year anniversary in Congress, and she’s beginning to collect the kinds of artifacts that come with the job.
A small television is mounted in one corner. Behind the glass case of her bookshelves are a trio of maneki neko figurines, the good-luck cats that are often seen raising a paw in the windows of restaurants.
Framed articles about her time in Congress hang on the walls, along with a depiction of two men in a canoe, paddling into the face of a great wave. Synthetic lei are draped on all four lampshades in the room.
In the waiting room area, twin clocks tick off the hours of the two time zones that matter most to Hanabusa: Honolulu and Washington, D.C. On the opposite wall, above the door leading into her inner office, are military seals for the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force.
Much of Hanabusa’s work on Capitol Hill is related to the defense industry. At the moment, though, she and her staffers are talking about marine issues, and the fact that the National Marine Fisheries Service recently canceled a meeting with the congresswoman at the last minute. One of her aides sounds slightly miffed as he describes the cancelation but Hanabusa chuckles.
“They were just upset,” Hanabusa says. “I said in a hearing — and of course all Republicans were in complete agreement with me — I just don’t understand the fish quotas … To have a fish quota that’s unrealistic for our diet, to me, is crazy.”
Hanabusa isn’t shy about calling it like she sees it. In fact, “shy” is probably the last word people who know her would use to describe the congresswoman.
“I don’t have any problems speaking my mind,” Hanabusa says, but also points out that her upbringing was strict and traditional.
Raised by her maternal grandmother because her own mother worked so much, Hanabusa attended Japanese language school and was taught the most traditional form of Japanese flower arranging. She learned to play the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument.
Hanabusa was just a little girl when she decided she wanted to become a lawyer, an ambition she chalks up to watching Perry Mason, a television series about a defense attorney that aired in the 1950s and 1960s.
“That’s because in Waianae you could only catch certain stations in the old days,” Hanabusa says.
Hanabusa passes the back entryway that most members of Congress use to enter the Armed Services hearing room, and instead walks through the main doors and through a cluster of reporters to her seat.
Avoiding the members-only entrance is purely a matter of practicality, she later explains, laughing at the exclusivity.
“Forget that,” she says. “I just want to get to my seat.”
All four service chiefs — leaders of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force — are on hand to testify about Department of Defense budget cuts and other issues facing the military. Photographers are crouched just beneath where Hanabusa is sitting, climbing over one another to capture photos of the military leaders.
The tone of the hearing is gloomy and filled with warnings about “catastrophic” cuts that would lead to national security threats.
Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno warns that the automatic cuts that would take effect if a congressional super committee fails to develop a budget reduction plan would cause the nation to “incur an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk.”
Hanabusa nods and takes notes, sometimes furrowing her brow as she listens to testimony. She frequently leans forward, resting her chin on her knuckles, her posture like Rodin’s “Thinker.”
When Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert mentions Hawaii in passing, Hanabusa looks up from her notes with a smile. She’s also pleased by a map that the military leaders passed out, one that makes the Pacific Ocean the focal point.
Here she is in her office later, showing off the map to her staffers:
Hanabusa says that more people in Washington are finally seeing the Pacific region as critical, both in economic and military terms, to the United States. But she says more needs to be done about China.
“The problem is that there just doesn’t seem to be a sense in Congress about the urgency of understanding China,” she says. “You don’t want any nation to hold us at bay the way China has, and we’re letting it happen.”
Hanabusa describes the reluctance to confront China on issues like currency manipulation as rooted in “a combination of things.”
“There’s probably a group that just will not recognize that any other nation in this world could possibly challenge the United States of America,” she says. “We’re still the greatest economy in the world, the strongest nation in the world. People’s perception is ‘we are it.’ It’s really a combination of not wanting to face up to it, and a fear of if we do face up to it, what do we begin to do?”
Hanabusa walks into the Capitol Visitors Center as a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” is echoing through the great hall. Fifes, drums and trumpets accompany an Army chorus bellowing the words.
Hundreds of Nisei World War II veterans have gathered — many of them are visiting from Hawaii — for a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. The congresswoman finds her seat just as the program is formally getting under way with remarks from House Speaker John Boehner. When he greets the crowd with “aloha,” they respond with appreciative applause.
The veterans who are being honored served in the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — Sen. Daniel Inouye also led a platoon in the 442nd — as well as the Military Intelligence Service and the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion.
Many of the veterans sit in wheelchairs, ears plugged with hearing aides, heads topped with bright caps that say “Go For Broke,” the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s slogan. Others wear American flag pins and lei woven with red, white and blue ribbons.
Hanabusa bows her head as the U.S. Senate chaplain, Barry Black, gives an invocation for those receiving this “overdue honor.” The ceremony continues, with remarks by a slew of high-profile congressional leaders like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
When it comes time for Inouye to speak, Hanabusa beams at her colleague.
“It’s been a long journey, but a glorious one,” Inouye says. “We wish to thank all of you, all Americans, for this recognition. It’s heart-warming, and I’m certain that I speak for all assembled here. But more importantly, I’m certain those who are resting in cemeteries are pleased with this day.”
Later in the ceremony, the Army band plays a tune that was written for the 100th Battalion. The lyrics make reference to the “boys of Hawaii Nei” and their eventual return to the comically elongated “Honolulululu.”
Hanabusa later says that as she listened to that song, she looked around at the old men around her and saw them as the boys they were when they were shipped off to World War II. She says it’s the closest she has come to crying in as long as she remembers.
Hanabusa is making the rounds after the ceremony, leaning down to greet veterans, smiling for flashing cameras. She is as animated as ever, laughing and regaling them with stories.
When one of the veterans says something about Wahiawa, Hanabusa points at him and exclaims: “Wahiawa? Did you say you’re from Wahiawa?”
The congresswoman’s enthusiasm and her casual affectation clearly put people at ease, and it appears that Hanabusa is genuinely enjoying herself.
Well after noon, once the chairs have been removed and most of the hall has long since emptied, it is a group from Hawaii — including Hanabusa, Rep. Mazie Hirono and Sen. Daniel Akaka — that is still hanging around and talking story.
One visitor from Hawaii gives Hanabusa a beautifully woven lei — ti leaves wrapped around tiny rosebuds — fresh from Kauai. Hanabusa later comments on the remarkable craftsmanship, but in the same breath wonders how it cleared agricultural security.
Still in the Capitol Visitors Center, Hanabusa sees a woman who looks familiar.
“Auntie Sue?” she asks, leaning in to read the woman’s name tag.
It turns how that Sue Arisumi went to school with Hanabusa’s uncle. The woman, who says she is 95, is overjoyed. Arisumi slaps her forehead, and screams — loud enough that people breaking down the event set-up turn to stare — “Waianae!”
Hanabusa lets out a hearty laugh.
“We were born in Waianae!” Arisumi tells a passerby. “Don’t we look alike?”
Once Arisumi has calmed down, she leans toward the congresswoman: “You’re doing a wonderful job.”
Hanabusa is standing with her arm around Sen. Daniel Akaka, her voice lower than usual as she speaks.
“You think we going to be able to get it through the Interior?” she asks him.
Hanabusa is referring to a legislative strategy aimed at passing the controversial Akaka Bill, which would provide federal recognition to Native Hawaiians.
While a stand-alone bill has failed to pass in Congress, the latest strategy to pass the measure came from Sen. Daniel Inouye, who inserted recognition language into a larger Department of the Interior spending bill.
“I hope so,” Akaka says. “It’s tough.”
“It is tough,” she says. “Anywhere we can tack it.”
“It’s sneaky,” Akaka says with a smile.
“It’s not sneaky,” Hanabusa replies. “It’s what it takes, man. We got to get it through.”
Akaka thanks her for the help, and the two continue posing for photos.
On the walk back toward her office, Hanabusa describes the challenges that still remain in passing legislation that recognizes Native Hawaiians as indigenous people.
“If people could just vote on whether it’s right — whether this is the right thing to do — then it wouldn’t be an issue,” Hanabusa says. “But unfortunately, it’s getting caught up, I think, in the politics of the whole situation. I’d like to think that’s going to have a better chance, simply because this just gives broad recognition, which is really what we need. A lot of it’s going to depend on, really, whether it becomes part of somebody’s radar, and what issue people are going to make of it.”
Hanabusa is having a conversation with a red-headed, bespectacled reporter from CQ Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication that’s doing a series of articles about new members of Congress.
Much of the interview is centered on issues related to defense. Hanabusa talks about how much she enjoys serving on the Armed Services Committee — the “most nonpartisan committee” in the House, she says.
She talks about the importance of the Pacific Ocean — “75 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, and 95 percent of commerce travels on the seas,” she says.
The congresswoman appears laid back as usual. She peppers her answers with Hawaii idioms and phrases — like “talk stink” — that she stops to explain to the reporter.
At one point, as she’s relaying a dialogue in which a fellow member of Congress addressed her as the “gentlelady from Hawaii,” Hanabusa interrupts herself to say, “Gentlelady. I kinda like that.”
As she’s getting accustomed to her role in Congress, Hanabusa also finds herself defending the legislative body at a time when national approval is at a record low.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we’re portrayed as such a dysfunctional group,” she says.
Hanabusa may not agree with Congress’ dismal reputation, but she does have frustrations with how things work on Capitol Hill. She’s describing them as she waits for the grilled cheese she just ordered in a small cafeteria in the basement of her House office building.
“It’s so stupid because we fight over rules in the beginning and then they just waive them,” Hanabusa says. “Every time. Every major bill has come before us on a suspension of the rules. You don’t even know it’s going to come up and, boom, it’s up. The worst part about it: How do you get transparency when you’re just bringing things to the floor like that?”
Hanabusa says it reminds her of her time in the Hawaii Senate, only on a much larger scale.
“The same problems the speaker at home had,” she says. “It’s magnified here.”
After paying for her lunch, which also includes a Diet Coke, Hanabusa rounds the corner to head back to her office when two staff members intercept.
No time for lunch. It’s time to vote, and Hanabusa has less than 10 minutes to get to the House floor.
The congresswoman trades her lunch for a sheet of paper, outlining the votes she’s about to make. On the agenda: Measures pertaining to the Civilian Service Recognition Act, the Small Company Capital Formation Act and an amendment to securities laws that has to do with shareholder registration.
Now she’s walking at a quick clip toward the House floor, squeezing into an elevator reserved for members of Congress, where she’s complimented about the lei she’s still wearing.
On the House floor, Hanabusa is leaning comfortably in her chair, chatting with colleagues. As usual, she punctuates her sentences with her hands and raises her eyebrows as she listens.
The House gallery sounds like a cocktail party without the music — peals of laughter, jubilant greetings — but Hanabusa and her colleagues look almost like a high school clique where they’re gathered.
On one side of Hanabusa is Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and on the other is Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., wearing one of her signature cowboy hats. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and David Cicilline, D-R.I., also sit with the group.
They laugh often, at one point hard enough that Hanabusa pitches forward in her chair. She says later that they almost always sit together, and often socialize. Cicilline helped her shop for throw pillows.
Rep. Mazie Hirono is standing two rows behind Hanabusa, but the two don’t speak. Hanabusa later acknowledges that they aren’t close friends, but rejects the idea that they don’t get along.
“People assume incorrectly that when you come from Hawaii there’s this link you have,” Hanabusa says. “We have different people we associate with. We’re not that similar in terms of how we vote, either. Our perspectives are different.”
Hanabusa seriously considered running for U.S. Senate in 2012, which would have pitted her against Hirono in a Democratic primary. Instead, Hanabusa is running for re-election in the House.
“The important thing is that we’re very civil,” Hanabusa says. “I don’t think you could say that we would go to dinner together or anything like that. That’s just not the relationship we have … Mazie’s the way Mazie is, and I’m the way I am.”
Back in her office, Hanabusa is polishing off the last corner of her now-cold grilled cheese sandwich. She has barely swallowed the last bite when it’s time to head to a brief Natural Resources hearing.
Hanabusa says she enjoys cooking in her free time, and seeks out vegetables that remind her of Hawaii — bok choy, water cress, bean sprouts, Japanese eggplant. She hosts semi-regular dinners for her staff so they can discuss policy in a casual setting. Most recently, she made Hawaiian style beef stew and potato mac salad.
“We just sit around and we talk,” Hanabusa says. “We have a good time.”
After the Natural Resources hearing, and before a string of late-afternoon meetings, Hanabusa has to file a bill, which she hand-delivers the legislation to the speaker’s lobby.
It’s a measure that would require the federal government to help cover the cost that states like Hawaii have to pay to uphold the United States’ obligations under the Compact of Free Association. (Read a related article about the bill.)
Just after 4 p.m., Hanabusa meets with a pair of women from the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
They want her support on a bill that would increase penalties for spectators of cockfights and dogfights. They are worried about chimps being held captive in warehouses, horses being slaughtered for consumption.
They also chat casually with the congresswoman about her love for animals. Hanabusa tells them about her 7-year-old border collie, Little, who she describes as “very smart” and “very pretty.” Little is still in Hawaii, and Hanabusa says she and her husband would never subject their dog to a move to Washington. Hanabusa also says that she hasn’t gone out to the movies since Little joined the family.
“She can’t go to the movies,” Hanabusa says. “So it’s a matter of protest until she’s allowed to go to the movies.”
Hanabusa’s next meeting is with Richard Ha, a Big Island farmer and geothermal energy advocate who is in town for a conference sponsored by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.
The two chat about geothermal energy opportunities, and Hanabusa jokingly calls volcanoes “the real bad guys” in global warming because “you cannot shut them off.”
Hanabusa is preparing to leave Capitol Hill for a gala to honor the Congressional Gold Medal recipients, but first takes a moment to reflect on her time in Congress thus far.
She’s still reveling in the newness of her job, and enjoys exploring Washington in her little free time. Her propensity for taking the metro — without fully knowing where she’s going — has led her staff to coin the term “hobbit adventures” for their boss’ weekend activities.
Hanabusa likes reading murder mysteries. She says she goes through “phases” with Sudoku, but not like former President Bill Clinton, who she heard completes the puzzles in “no time flat.”
“That’s why he was president,” she says with a laugh.
She recently went to a Redskins-Giants game at FedEx Field just outside of Washington, though says it “didn’t matter” to her who won. Mostly, she was interested in the matchup from an economic standpoint, she says.
“People say the economy’s bad,” Hanabusa says. “I was just watching them and it was amazing the money they spent. People had Redskins jerseys on. You look at the cost to families: It’s $9 a beer, $5 a bottle of water, popcorn. Add it all up, it’s huge.”
Hanabusa supports her staff’s co-ed football team, the Book ‘Em Dannos. When they were playing softball last spring, Hanabusa lugged a collection of good quality bats from Hawaii to Washington for them.
Hanabusa clearly relishes her time in Congress, which she calls “exciting but extremely frustrating.” She says that if she could have any superpower, it would be to resolve the budget crisis.
“I would like to be able to make the decisions on the budget without having to have the consensus of everybody else,” Hanabusa says. “And to make it work. That would be a real superpower.”
The pace of progress in painfully slow, she says, and Hanabusa is impatient for it.
“I can identify what the problems are but part of me is saying, ‘How are you going to figure this thing out?’ It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” she says. “It’s within your reach to try and do something big. Before, you could say, ‘We can’t do anything, it’s up to Congress.’ But now that I’m here it’s within my reach but you realize what you need to do to get substantive change.”