While Dan Inouye’s immense impact on Hawaii is difficult to measure, his association with the East-West Center is easily one of his most significant accomplishments.

Take a close look at the photograph at right: That’s a very young Inouye, then in the U.S. House of Representatives, standing with other members of the congressional delegation as they view an architectural model of the proposed East-West Center campus.

The year is 1960, and the caption in the center’s Flickr photostream reads, “The delegation will go before the Senate Appropriations Committee within a few days to seek funds for the center.”

Inouye would soon be elected senator himself — there is a photo of Inouye breaking ground on the center along with then Vice President Lyndon Johnson — and eventual chairman of Senate Appropriations, posts he held until his death on Dec. 17 at the age of 88.

Today, Hawaii has a congressional delegation with just a combined eight years in Washington, including two senators who just started their jobs. Many in the islands are worried about the potential loss of federal appropriations in the post-Inouye era.

But the East-West Center, knowing that Inouye would one day no longer be around, began looking for greater financial support from sources other than Congress — regional governments, foundations, individuals, corporations, private agencies — some time ago.

The effort has paid off. The center’s non-appropriated funding has increased from $3.8 million in 1985 to $15.8 million in 2012 — that is, from 17 percent of total center funding to 49 percent.

“We have been focused on increasing non-appropriated funding for a number of years,” said Karen Knudsen, director of external affairs for the East-West Center. “I think that, like everyone in the state of Hawaii and across the nation, of course the senator’s passing was a great concern. We are sorry to have lost such a strong supporter. It was a huge loss.”

She continued: “However, we have been aware that this day would come, and so we are working with what we have.”

Honolulu attorney Richard Turbin, vice chairman of the center’s board of governors and chairman of its development committee, called Inouye “a godfather, really, for the East-West Center.”

“With him gone we would be stark-raving mad to say that we’re not concerned about funding,” Turbin said.

But Turbin said he’s optimistic about the center’s future, in large part because of success in attracting more outside support.

“I don’t want to be Pollyannish about it, but the East-West Center is too important to wither away,” he said. “And with the pivot from Obama to Asia, the East-West Center is needed more than ever.”

57,000 Alumni

The core mission of the East-West Center is to promote “cooperative study, research, and dialogue” in order to improve relations between United States, Asia and the Pacific.

Established by Congress, the center is an independent nonprofit that boasts more than 57,000 alumni and 750 partner organizations. It sits on 21 acres next to the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus and keeps an office in Washington, D.C.

The center’s board of governors is comprised of appointments from Hawaii’s governor (an ex-officio), the U.S. Secretary of State and international members elected by the board.

The center’s current budget is $32.5 million, of which $16.7 million comes from congressional appropriations and $15.8 million from other sources. Those sources include $4.5 million in federal grants and contracts and $11.3 million from private groups, foundations and foreign governments.

The center often hosts very high-profile government VIPs. Two recent examples: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in 2010 and 2011, and Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi this past weekend.

Clinton was in Honolulu in 2010 to celebrate the center’s 50th anniversary and in 2011 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, hosted by President Barack Obama.

The selection of Honolulu to host APEC was due in no small part to Charles Morrison, who has served as East-West Center president since 1998. Both Knudsen and Turbin heap praise on Morrison for also leading efforts to get more outside funding.

“Charles, he’s a very modest guy, the last person in the world to seek credit, but I have to give him a lot of credit because it is the programs he has been pushing that have helped us,” said Turbin.

The programs include the Brunei-U.S. English Language Enrichment Program for ASEAN, which trains teachers, officials and diplomats from nine Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries. The program, inaugurated in September by Clinton and the Brunei foreign minister, brought 50 people to the center in November for a month of intensive English-language education training.

The center expects to receive $9 million over five years for its role in this program, which is funded by the government of Brunei.

The East-West Center also receives grant money for various projects. A recent example, and one pertinent to Hawaii as an island state, was a $3.8 million grant in 2010 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help Pacific communities deal with climate change.

Turbin said the center is working on obtaining more grants from the U.S., in particular philanthropic organizations “on the eastern corridor, from Boston to Washington.”

“We think the East-West Center has been off their radar as far as what the institute does, so we need to educate them,” he said.

Federal Funding Levels for East-West Center, 2009-2013

Fiscal Year | Office of Management and Budget Request | Final Congressional Appropriation

2013 | $10.8 million | Pending
2012 | $10.8 million | $16.7 million
2011 | $11.4 million | $21 million
2010 | $11.7 million | $21.3 million
2009 | $10 million | $21 million

Source: East-West Center.

‘Programs That Refuse To Die’

The East-West Center is not universally loved. Some Republicans in Congress, bent on cutting government waste, would like to see its elimination.

In 1995, after the takeover of the House by Newt Gingrich, center funding was cut drastically.

“It was traumatic,” said Knudsen. “We lost 50 percent of our staff at that time. But if there was a positve outcome out of that, we had to reassess, refocus and be far more efficient in what we were doing in our mission and daily operations. You never like to see people lose their jobs, but I think we have come back as a much stronger organization. And at that time we did have to start seeking outside funding. The funding has proved the value of the research and different activities the center does.”

Knudsen said the center is supported by some Republicans. But, for some in the GOP, the knives are still out.

In 2011, following the midterm election of Tea Party members, there were proposals to cut the center’s appropriations completely. California Congressman Edward Royce called support for the center one of the “programs that refuse to die.”

Around that time, the ban on congressional earmarks also went into effect. In the end, however, likely through Inouye’s help, the center was funded $16.7 million. But that represented a 20 percent cut from the previous year.

The center continues to be funded until March. That’s when Congress will have to deal with deadlines for both the automatic budget cuts that come with sequestration and continuing to fund the federal government.

Like so many other programs, the center could see cuts to its federal funding and — in the event of a government shutdown — the turning off of the spigot.

“We’re hopeful — we think we are going to be OK for the next budget,” said Turbin. “Like Hillary Clinton, we think John Kerry (the new secretary of state) will be very engaged with the East-West Center.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Brian Schatz, who was appointed to replace Inouye, and Sen. Mazie Hirono, who was elected to the seat vacated by the retirement of Dan Akaka, are committed to the center’s funding.

“Over the coming months, I will continue the fight for funding of the East-West Center and the many other programs important to Hawaii,” Schatz said Wednesday in response to Civil Beat’s inquiry. “I will make clear that funding for the East-West center is vital to American interests and part of President Obama’s renewed focus on Asia.”

In her statement, Hirono also mentioned Obama’s foreign policy focus but also linked directly to Inouye’s legacy:

“I have long supported the goals of the East-West center and worked closely with Senator Inouye and the rest of Hawaii’s delegation to keep it funded,” she said. “While Hawaii’s new delegation is continuing that legacy and working closely to advocate for the center in Congress, the reality is that all states and all sectors of government are facing calls for cuts. In this unstable funding environment, I applaud the East-West Center for exploring private sector funding options as well as federal support to continue their important work.”

A 2007 East-West Center dinner honoring Sen. Dan Inouye, pictured with center students.

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