- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — The government is shut down, Donald Trump is still president and, as Democrats take control of the House, partisanship will reign supreme.
Welcome to 2019!
The new legislative session kicks off today, and Hawaii will be inviting a new member into its federal delegation — Ed Case, who’s returning to Congress after 11 years.
But before we look forward we thought it might be constructive to take a peek back at the past two years to see how the state’s elected representatives fared in their efforts to represent our far-flung state. Think of it as a scorecard.
While there are plenty of ways to gauge a lawmaker’s effectiveness in Congress — from the number of bills passed to public pronouncements that spark national debate — it’s an inexact science.
There are a number of journalists and academics who follow voting trends, to determine everything from ideological leanings to absenteeism.
Again, it’s necessary to note that none of these metrics is perfect. Lawmakers do a lot of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes and in their committees to benefit their interests and those of their constituents. The fingerprints aren’t always obvious.
Take the National Defense Authorization Act, which lays out the U.S. military’s priorities for the coming year.
It’s an important bill for Hawaii, and three of the state’s four federal representatives, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa, sat on the Armed Services committees in 2018 that helped craft the language of the legislation.
Together they were able to not only help shepherd tens of millions of dollars to the state for military construction projects, but also lay the foundation for better missile defenses should a rogue nation like North Korea launch an assault on the islands.
Success can also be buried deep inside other bills.
That was the case for the Macadamia Tree Health Initiative, legislation supported by all four members of Hawaii’s delegation — Hirono, Gabbard, Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz — that was inserted into the farm bill that Trump signed into law last month.
That bill now opens up a pathway for more research to help macadamia nut farmers fight back against an invasive beetle that’s literally sucking the life out of one of Hawaii’s most lucrative and iconic food crops.
Hawaii’s senators, Schatz and Hirono, were particularly active over the past two years, at least when it came to introducing legislation.
Hirono introduced 58 bills, more than any other member of the four-person delegation. Schatz came in second with 44 pieces of legislation — not including amendments — submitted for consideration.
Gabbard and Hanabusa, meanwhile, introduced 23 and 13 bills and resolutions, respectively.
Together, the delegation gained traction on a number of bills, not all of which became law, but are likely to come back in 2019 with bipartisan support.
Two in particular are the ALERT and READI acts, two pieces of legislation that passed the Senate but stalled out in the House before the end of the 2017-2018 session. Both bills were in response to the Jan. 13, 2017, false missile alert that sent a shudder through Hawaii.
The purpose of the bills — which were co-sponsored by all four members of the delegation — was to increase oversight and ensure that similar debacles don’t occur in the future.
Both Schatz and Hirono saw a number of their bills move through the Congress in the last session. Schatz, in particular, was able to insert language for one of his bills, the GRACE Act, into the final version of the criminal justice reform act signed last month by Trump.
That bill seeks to streamline and improve the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ process for compassionate release of elderly and terminally ill inmates.
Also, in the final flurry of the session, the Senate passed another Schatz measure that seeks to expand the AMBER Alert messaging system for missing children to the Pacific territories.
But like the false missile legislation, the bill didn’t make it through the House in time to land on the president’s desk, and will likely come back in the coming session.
Several other Schatz measures passed Congress and became law, including a bill to help small businesses with cybersecurity and another to increase access to military commissaries and recreational facilities for disabled veterans.
Hirono passed bipartisan legislation to extend investor and trade visas to New Zealand citizens and make it easier for Americans and others associated with Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation countries to navigate airport security.
She also passed legislation to ensure certain disabled veterans working for the Veterans Administration were granted the same sick leave benefits as their peers.
In the wake of Kilauea’s eruption, Hirono also teamed up with fellow senators Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Maria Cantwell, of Washington, to pass a bill through the Senate to create better early warning systems for volcanoes. That legislation stalled in the House.
Hirono also sponsored the official resolution — supported by the rest of the delegation — congratulating Honolulu on its Little League World Series Championship.
Gabbard and Hanabusa weren’t as prolific when it came to gaining traction on original sponsored legislation, although Hanabusa was able to pass one bill into law for a new commemorative display at Pearl Harbor.
Hanabusa also made significant headway in passing a piece of legislation through the House related to historic site designations for Pearl Harbor and Honouliuli National Monument.
Gabbard introduced several pieces of aspirational legislation that could boost her bonafides should she run for president in 2020.
The Hawaii congresswoman has received significant attention for her Off Fossil Fuels Act as well as her Stop Arming Terrorists Act, neither of which moved during the session.
Gabbard, however, has gained a lot of bipartisan support for a bill she introduced that sought to evaluate exposure of U.S. service members to burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals. By the end of the two-year term the bill had more than 150 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle.
Gabbard, a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, was also able to secure about $1 million in the Defense Department budget via an amendment for burn pit research.
Another question one might have when gauging a lawmaker’s record, especially in this political environment, is: Who voted with Trump?
Hawaii is as blue — politically speaking — as the ocean that surrounds it. Every member of the federal delegation is a registered Democrat, yet they span the ideological spectrum.
There are a number of organizations that track politicians’ voting records, from ProProblica and FiveThirtyEight to DW-NOMINATE, which some have called “the gold standard” for measuring a lawmaker’s ideological leanings.
Let’s start with FiveThirtyEight’s tool that tracks specifically how often a representative or a senator voted in line with the president’s position.
Based on the news organization’s analysis, all four members of the delegation voted in line with Trump about a quarter of the time, from Schatz’s high of 27.4 percent to a low of 21.4 percent for Hanabusa.
Hirono, who’s become perhaps the most vocal Trump critic, voted in line with the president’s wishes about 25 percent of the time, according to the analysis.
But it’s important to remember that some of those votes are for things that have much broader constituencies, such as the farm bill, disaster relief for Puerto Rico and legislation to address the opioid crisis.
For comparison, the four Democratic senators who voted with Trump more than 50 percent of the time during the last session were Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly, of Indiana, and Doug Jones, of Alabama.
The DW-NOMINATE ideology score compares Hawaii’s delegation’s voting records to the rest of their colleagues.
The data shows that during the 115th Congress — which spanned 2017-2018 — Schatz and Hirono were two of the most liberal senators in their chamber, with Schatz leaning farther left than 78 percent of his Democratic colleagues and Hirono leaning farther left than 89 percent.
Gabbard and Hanabusa were significantly more conservative than most in their party, according to the metrics. Perhaps most surprising was Gabbard’s ideological score, showing that she voted more conservatively than 83 percent of Democrats in the House.
Gabbard, who’s considering a run for president, has been looked at by many as a progressive darling in the race for 2020. But her record also highlights why she’s viewed favorably by some on the right, including one of Trump’s former closest advisors, Steve Bannon.
For comparison, the outgoing Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke — who many consider an early frontrunner for 2020 and who’s been catching heat for his conservative voting record — has a less conservative voting record than his Hawaii colleague.
While a politician’s voting record matters in that it’s one of the few tangible metrics that are available to constituents to gauge job performance, so too does their attendance.
This can be hard, especially for a lawmaker whose district is located several time zones away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Schatz highlighted the difficulties just last month when he flew back to Hawaii for the holidays only to immediately turn around and hop a plane back to Washington to deal with a pending government shutdown.
Still, Schatz and Hirono do a good job splitting their time. An analysis from ProPublica shows that both senators only missed 2 percent of their votes.
Conversely in the House, Gabbard missed about 6 percent of her votes, according to the ProPublica analysis of her record during the last two-year session, which puts her in the top quarter for absenteeism.
Gabbard has missed votes in the past due to her military service. The congresswoman also had to defend her seat in the last Democratic primary, although she did not face a significant challenge.
Hanabusa, however, missed nearly 15 percent of her votes, which ranked her, according to ProPublica’s analysis, as the 13th most absent member of the entire House.
Hanabusa, of course, skipped a lot of votes while campaigning for governor in Hawaii against fellow Democrat David Ige, who easily won re-election in the August primary.
The congresswoman also didn’t participate in a number of key votes during the subsequent lame duck session, including on the budget measure that ultimately led to the government shutdown and on a sweeping, bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that has since been signed into law by Trump.
She did say through a press spokesman afterward that she planned to come back to vote on compromise legislation to end the shutdown if necessary.
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