Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with U.S. Rep. Ed Case Monday in a wide-ranging interview. The topics included infrastructure legislation, police reform, U.S. policy in the Pacific, helping businesses survive COVID-19 and Honolulu rail. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories. Case began the interview by explaining his current priorities.

From my perspective, we are almost one quarter through this Congress. That’s how fast Congresses go. So it’s a very, very intense time for a lot of different reasons. It would be intense in the normal course of any Congress. But of course, we have a lot of things happening in addition to all of the things that usually happen.

As usual, my efforts and my time kind of gets split in a couple of different ways. I first of all have to deal with and think through and try to figure out what the right thing to do is on the national issues that come along. Police reform would be one area. Clearly, it’s both something that I think is very, very important, but also it’s just a national issue right now. Immigration would be another of the great issues that we’re dealing with.

I certainly focus on my committees — that governs a lot of my workload — and focus on appropriations, my major committee. And that’s very busy right now because we are in the middle of preparing for fiscal year 2022 and that starts at the House.

Congressman Ed Case spoke to the Civil Beat Editorial Board via Zoom on Monday. Screenshot

And then finally taking care of individual needs, which continue to be 90%-plus related to COVID-19 itself. It’s about the public health side of it. It is certainly about the federal emergency assistance with our three major packages, which is now I think closing in on somewhere in the range of $20 billion of it in one way, shape or form to the state of Hawaii, which has been essential.

On top of all of that, I definitely have been focusing on my new partner and making sure that Congressman (Kai) Kahele is up and going. And that’s all going extremely well. He’s a full contributing member and we’ve got a great working and personal relationship, so that has been a very good part of this Congress from my perspective.

My top-of-mind question is the proposed infrastructure bill. The GOP and the White House and Democrats are going back and forth on proposals and dollar figures. Give us an update on how you think that’s going and what it might mean to Hawaii, given all our infrastructure problems here.

President Biden put forward two general proposals — one, his so-called American Jobs Plan, which is a physical infrastructure bill. And he started at $2.2 trillion. He also then subsequently proposed what he referred to as the American Families Plan, which is sometimes described as social infrastructure. So, not so much roads and bridges and physical traditional infrastructure but really child tax credits, tax-related social spending in a large infrastructure umbrella.

Those two are before Congress, although the American Jobs Plan is really laser-focused. Interrelated to that and a subset of that, for all practical purposes, is the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act, which is our periodic federal funding and supplementation of what it sounds like — surface transportation projects. So that’s what’s before us right now in the big picture.

I’m not optimistic that we are using this tragic opportunity to find a better way forward, either for tourism or for a more diversified economy.

We have, of course, had a continuing negotiation between — at least from the public media — and discussion between the Republicans and President Biden over whether we could get to a bipartisan infrastructure package at some level. And you’ve all seen what the Republicans came up with and that President Biden over the weekend suggested $1.7 trillion dollars, total physical infrastructure. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on below that line.

There are negotiations, for example, just within my caucus over the size of that and what it should entail and under what conditions. There are negotiations that are going on between House Dems and Republicans, Senate Dems and Republicans. My Problem Solvers Caucus members are deep into it, my Blue Dog Caucus members are in it. Everybody is in some way, shape or form trying to sift through it.

I think probably the big picture questions, if you really want to go macro on it, are not so much whether we do need a large infrastructure bill, a much larger bill than we usually contemplate — really, a once in a generation measure. I think everybody is roughly on the same page along these lines. Even the Republicans’ initial proposal would be along those lines to start with.

Case told the Civil Beat Editorial Board that it is essential for the U.S. to have a strong presence in the Pacific region. Screenshot

So we are talking about overall size. We’re talking about how broad and how related what you would consider a traditional infrastructure. Again, roads, bridges, harbors, broadband, hospitals, schools. Those don’t always fit within the traditional definition of infrastructure. But I think they’re fairly in this discussion right now.

How do you pay for it? We just borrowed $5 trillion dollars over the last 13 or so months for COVID-19. Our federal debt is now at $28 trillion, plus all kinds of the “highest evers” in terms of (our) fiscal condition. If you go out there and actually throw another $2 trillion at that, how do you pay for it?

The president has suggested that it should be paid for — which is kind of a starting point of the negotiations — through a number of kind of resumptions of tax basis, especially for corporations that predated President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. And so that’s all very fluid right now.

I think there is a relatively decent chance that we would see an infrastructure bill. It could move by reconciliation, which is in so many words, how, under the circumstances, we move something through Congress without dealing with the Senate filibuster. But the problem there is that it’s not a uniform Democratic caucus on either the House or the Senate side. So you still have to find some form of compromise on it. I think that’s all doable. But we’re just going through a very difficult negotiation process all around.

As to what it could mean for Hawaii, it could be a tremendous asset if constructed carefully and applied. We do have crumbling infrastructure here like the rest of the country. We have major, major issues in terms of just our basic roads to start with, our sewer and water lines under the ground, our harbors. And then I would mention broadband. I strongly support the expansion of broadband throughout our country. We still have many, many parts of my district, urban Honolulu, that are insufficiently served by broadband before we get to the rest of the state.

Just a follow-up to that, the infrastructure bill, whatever the ultimate dollar figure and whether or not it has GOP support or buy-in, it pretty much has to be done quickly, is that correct? There’s a short window here.

Well, it doesn’t have to be done quickly in the sense that there’s no absolute deadline that is driving a deal. I think everybody just generally agrees that this is the time that it needs to be done.

We’ve seen inflation concerns and there is a growing concern as to whether there is just simply too much federal spending out there for what is needed. And that is a danger. But I think most of us believe that if we carefully structure it, we can tailor it, as opposed to just say, “Hey, let’s throw $4 trillion at something called infrastructure.”

It is urgent in that sense for a kind of a mid-term recovery from COVID-19. And that was the impetus given. But we’ve been talking about a major infrastructure bill for several congresses now, so it’s not new to COVID-19.

The last time you spoke with us, you talked about trying to get a better handle on why so many people voted for Donald Trump, or what sort of split in the kind of collective political sphere is out there. I think you mentioned that you were doing a survey or something. What happened with that and can you update us on what you’ve discovered?

I think we all discovered from the last election and how that election unfolded that the levels of folks that supported President Trump were higher than we thought.

And I think we also have to face the fact that although we always think we’re different from the rest of the country, (people in Hawaii) are driven by many of the same basic concerns that are driving folks that are voting for Trump across the rest of the country. I don’t want to generalize, but there is a fundamental dislocation or a sense of disenfranchisement, that our government is going in the wrong direction for the country and is not representing them. And certainly, there are concerns with the Democratic Party among Trump voters that believe that the Democratic Party has simply gone off the rails in some ways. And that’s not where they want the country to go.

Trump supporters holds signs and flags along King Street, fronting the Capitol. January 6, 2021.
President Donald Trump’s supporters held a peaceful protest in Honolulu on Jan. 6 as things turned violent in Washington, D.C. Rep. Case said that it’s important for him to understand the views of Trump voters who live in his district. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now, of course, in our Democratic Party, we have folks that kind of mirror that approach or that view, I would say, as to the Trump side of things. But as we’ve seen very clearly in the last couple of months, up to — and including — the last week, the Republican Party has tied itself to President Trump. It is not deciding, at least at this point, to take a view that its best chance of maintaining power and influence in government is by disassociating from Trump. In fact, the decision has been to embrace it, which I think is very troubling for the Republican Party. And it certainly creates a great deal of challenge for the non-Trump part of the party within Congress itself.

Has what you’ve learned about this issue changed your thinking in any way or are you doing anything differently to take in the views of some of these folks?

Well, I am still always trying to understand that perspective. I represent them in Congress. Roughly one-third of my constituents support President Trump. I have to find some way to understand that and where I can at least try to incorporate that into my thinking and my approaches.

And so I have not taken it from a purely 100% partisan perspective. Of course, that’s not me to start with. But the temptation under this situation is — and I think some of my colleagues across the country go in this direction — is simply to write off that part of your constituency. And I just can’t do that. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.

I think the thing to do is to try to listen even more and try to discern what’s really going on. And sure, some of it is just, hey, there’s never going to be a connection. I mean, I’m never going to have a connection with somebody that advocates from a white supremacist perspective. There’s really no reconciling that.

But if the area of reconciliation lies in the area of, ‘your party is off the tracks and you’re not going in the right direction’ — OK, let’s talk about why is that and where can we find some agreement? I think I owe (them) that as their representative.

You travel back and forth, you see what the situation is like in Hawaii compared to elsewhere in terms of vaccine passports. We don’t yet have a system in place to accommodate Trans-Pacific travelers. It’s just interisland right now. The quarantine still exists. The testing still exists. Where do you stand on Gov. Ige’s position?

I support him. I think he’s doing the right thing. I think that he is playing it safe. He has been criticized for the vast majority of the last 16 months for being too safe. And yet he has consistently had some of the better or best public health results in the entire country. I won’t say we were New Zealand, but we got serious about it pretty early. We were advocating for masks on airplanes before there was a requirement for masks on airplanes. I think the continued requirement of pre-COVID departure testing to avoid quarantine on this end — even if you’ve already been vaccinated — is wise for now at least.

Masked Governor David Ige during joint press conference with Mayors from maui and Kauai counties during COVID-19 pandemic. August 20, 2020
Gov. David Ige at a press conference in August. Rep. Case says of the governor’s controversial policies on COVID-19, “I think he’s doing the right thing. I think that he is playing it safe.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On the CARES Act, there’s been some delays in the live venue fund — getting the money out. And I know that that’s probably pretty important to Hawaii. Have you received any complaints from anybody out there about the slow nature of some of this money going out?

When you take a look at travel and tourism overall, the most heavily impacted industry nationally — internationally, for that matter — from COVID-19’s tremendous impact on Hawaii, I think we also have to go back to the idea that it’s a multifaceted industry. A lot goes into that industry that makes it tick. So we’re talking about the airlines to start with. In the case of Hawaii, we’re talking obviously about the hotels. We are talking about restaurants. We are talking about nightclubs and entertainment, and we are talking about event planners, for example. So they’re all the way from some of the largest corporations in the world to big business, all the way down to mom and pop sole proprietors that just run their own shop that connects with some event planner.

And the aid to that industry has been inconsistent across the board. We’ve had good, solid support from the very beginning for the airline industry. I think that pulled them through. I don’t think anybody can doubt that. We definitely had the PPP, which yielded billions of dollars, much of it obtained by the travel and tourism industry overall. And then later on, we had more tailored programs specific to parts of that industry.

Since we last spoke, you’ve reintroduced the bill about focusing on the U.S. policy on the Pacific. And there’s also been a lot of activity. We had the introduction of the Endless Frontier Act and Congressman Barr’s act to fight the political, military, economic and technological threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party. I wonder if you could update us on your efforts on that front and also specifically kind of getting closer to Hawaii. Reuters had a report earlier this month that says that China has drawn up plans to upgrade an airstrip and bridge on Kiribati.

Starting with your last point, I’m very concerned with China having an airbase at Kiribati, which is our closest neighbor in the Pacific — it’s a lot closer than people think. Somehow they think about, well, you know, Fiji and some of Micronesia, which are thousands of miles away, that’s not the case with Kiribati, it’s much, much closer. And it’s certainly of great concern from the military’s perspective. But it should illustrate the stark reality of what China is trying to accomplish in the Indo-Pacific broadly and the Pacific islands more specifically, which is it’s always top of mind to (INDOPACOM) including our new admiral.

And certainly, the first and foremost thing we need to do is to maintain our military presence throughout the Pacific.

I’m very concerned with China having an airbase at Kiribati, which is our closest neighbor in the Pacific.

You talk about the military, but when you talk about some of my efforts in particular and to include the bills you mentioned — I think you’re referring to the BLUE Pacific Act, which was the bill that I introduced in the last Congress, and that we introduced again in this Congress, to essentially dramatically expand our country’s nonmilitary outreach to the Pacific islands, so-called soft power.

I was on another call this morning and somebody asked me a China question and I said, well, the first thing to say about China is that China has unified the United States Congress. It is probably the most unifying single issue in the U.S. Congress right now. And of course, that’s not a good thing because they had to do something to get us unified. But it’s a good thing that we are more unified about that, both from the military perspective and from the nonmilitary perspective, which has tended to be kind of left behind as we focused exclusively too much on the military, I should say.

And so there are a number of issues that are going on right now with the BLUE Pacific Act, which expands that presence — it has Senate counterparts. Senator Schatz just introduced his Honoring OCEANIA bill and we introduced his bill on the House side as a counterpart just last week. I think we’ll see a lot of legislative activity in the next few months coming out of the U.S. Congress. I think we’re going to see it in the appropriations process.

In terms of our defense and our military, I think we’re also going to see these nonmilitary bills that are going to move, and I’m very optimistic that my BLUE Pacific Act is going to be a part of a larger package that is directed at China in part.

You talked about the China policy, which, you’re right, has a lot of bipartisan support. But I wonder what you think about this latest push by kind of the progressive cadre. They recently came out with a letter expressing concern that these new anti-China policies will inflame racism against Asian Americans, and the progressive lawmakers, including Representative Ilhan Omar, have had a lot of sway. And I just wonder if that’s something that might actually influence things or if you just see that as a small protest.

No, I don’t think it’s a small thing at all. I think it’s real. I think it’s a real concern and that words matter. If you go out there and talk about the threat that China poses and you purposely or unintentionally phrase it in the wrong language, all of a sudden you do turn it into a definite risk factor for discrimination and concern and even hate and even violence against Asian Americans. We’ve seen that already.

I have actually spoken from that perspective myself personally on the House floor, as well as through my Asian Pacific American Caucus, that, “Hey, let’s be really, really careful when we’re talking about the threat of China.” Let’s not end up with incendiary language, as I think our prior president used in some cases that ended up with a result that was absolutely not necessary and was negligent in some ways.

I, for example, offered a successful amendment about a year ago to the National Defense Authorization Act, which basically went after the issue of perceived anti-Americanism or at least concerned anti-Americanism, but by Chinese American professors in our universities where there was a real concern that they were being targeted, possibly because of their ethnicity, because we were concerned about China. And China is very active in our universities in trying to take our secrets there. So let’s be eyes wide open on that.

But to then go from that perspective to the next level, which is OK, well, therefore, we should investigate all Chinese American professors for potentially fitting into that category is a real risk. And my amendment said basically, “You can’t do that.” And although that was targeted at reporting on it over a year, it is now turning into a regular reporting requirement and concern.

Near the end of the Trump administration, there was a lot of movement towards agreement between the three Compact of Free Association nations and the Interior Department. But that administration is gone. There’s been a lot of developments in the Pacific region, not just the congressional acts being introduced, but leadership struggles, differences of opinion. Where is COFA as of today? Because ultimately it has to be renewed by Congress, is that correct?

Congress has to approve a proposed renewed compact, more accurately, so Congress is not generally an active participant at this point. It is being negotiated between State and to some extent Interior and the compact countries themselves. And that negotiation has been ongoing for almost two years, if I recall. I think they started at the beginning of the end of 2019, the beginning of 2020. It does appear to have stalled with the turnover of administrations. Now they’re getting down to some tough stuff in terms of the actual negotiations. So that could be part of it.

I actually just asked my staff to set up a briefing with State and Interior to understand perfectly what the status of the negotiations are. And the reason for me to do it is twofold. The first reason is that I support the compacts and I don’t want them to fail. We had a very difficult situation some time ago, the last time around, where they just lagged for years. And it just threw all kinds of monkey wrenches into the relationship back and forth. It caused distrust on both sides. And so my approach is, let’s punch through and get it agreed to.

But also I remain very concerned about the financial impacts on those areas of our country — especially in Hawaii — who bear the burden of those compacts to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. And I have inserted myself into those discussions much more to say, “Hey, don’t finish your compacts and then dump it on Congress and say the impact is your business. I don’t accept that. It’s your problem to start with — your collective problem — that is not so much on the compact countries, but certainly on State and Interior and the administration that you have to factor this into your negotiations. Because my state and the rest of the folks that are bearing the multi-billion-dollar cost of this over 10 years can’t do that anymore.”

Of course, some of that was ameliorated by the amendments to Medicaid reimbursement for compacts at the end of last year that the last Congress, I should say, that Sen. Hirono led over on the Senate side. But the bill is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars for Hawaii.

Back to your previous gig but also tying into your current position, coming out of this pandemic, the economic recovery — have you seen Hawaii move to do anything different to wean itself off of tourism as the economic driver?

No, I haven’t seen a thing that’s happened along those lines. A lot of talk about, “Hey, you know, now we understand what can actually happen.” Tourism is an international business that is subject to fluctuations in the world economy, not to mention black swan events every once in a while, so “Let’s get ourselves a little bit more protected.” Yeah, a lot of talk, but absolutely nothing. Just a complete drift back to the status quo. And I think that if that’s proved to be the case, that would be tragic because we missed an opportunity.

I’ll tell you the one thing I’ve noticed the most, I think two years ago with my first interview with you all when I was reelected to Congress and I said something that was taken as revolutionary at the time, which was tourism is losing public support. We probably should find ways to limit tourism. We’re passing through 10 million visitors a year. And of course, the year after that, we had another record and the year after that we were on track for another record. And everybody could see that the level of public dissatisfaction with at least the brand of tourism we’ve been pursuing for decades now, which is essentially high volume but low cost that therefore incentivizes more high volume. You know, (during the pandemic) people got a sense of what it was like before we had 10 million tourists. And I don’t think too many people want to go back to those days. And there are alternatives, but they’re all tough. And you’ve got to kind of work it through.

I think one lesson that we have definitely learned from COVID-19 is that our federal government’s presence in Hawaii saved our butts.

So I’m not optimistic that we are using this tragic opportunity to find a better way forward, either for tourism itself or for a more diversified economy. I think one lesson that we have definitely learned — I hope people have learned this, because it was a little obscured during the COVID pandemic — is that our federal government’s presence in Hawaii, which is by far a defense presence, saved our butts. To think of an economy dependent on two principal industries, which together amount to somewhere in the range of 50% to 60% of our total economy, and one went completely down by 90% plus and the other was unaffected and really pulled a lot of people through. Let’s be really, really careful in questioning the contribution of the national defense, not just in our part of the world where I think it needs to be as a sustainable economy at some level here in Hawaii. So that’s one lesson that we learned.

Is it really the role of your office, of your colleagues, our delegation, to get Hawaii to come up with another industry, or is that really going to come from the state, the governor, the legislature, or does Congress have a role in this?

Of course, Congress has a role. I’m responsible for trying to figure out what my state needs and to develop federal policies and funding to match that need. And I certainly have my own ideas, but I don’t think it’s Congress’ role to do a top-down approach and say, “Oh, Hawaii, we decree from Washington, D.C., that you should substantially increase or decrease your number of tourists and take the steps necessary to do that.” For example, crackdown on illegal vacation rentals, or let’s try an anathema one — let’s say that we’re not going to build any new expanded airport facilities.

OK, so let’s take those steps. Let’s talk about much higher user fees. Let’s talk about tax increases that have the net effect of making it more expensive to come here and therefore actually would probably reduce the number of tourists. Maybe not as much as some people say, because the demand is still going to be there. We’re still an incredibly desirable destination. I think we know that at this point.

But these are tough decisions that should be made at the state level. And I’ve got a role to play. I spend a lot of my time on agriculture, as an example, even though it’s not my district, it’s not an agricultural district but it is the right thing to do for the state. There’s a lot of attention being given in the media to the contributions of the University of Hawaii to our economy, as if that’s some big surprise. There’s a lot of work that goes into contributing to our economy at the federal level, and that’s very purposeful. How do you develop alternative areas for economic sustainability over time?

So I guess that’s a long way of saying, no, I can’t be the mandate from on high from D.C. But the responsibility of charting the course of the state, economically or otherwise is primarily a state responsibility. And I’m supposed to help.

The Honolulu rail project: There have been developments in the last few months not encouraging for those who wish it to go all the way to Ala Moana Center. Where do you stand on this?

If you don’t build it to downtown or to Ala Moana, you lose substantial ridership on it. You don’t fulfill the purpose of the project to start with, which was really an urban transportation backbone all the way through, and for that matter beyond, because I don’t think anybody thought that that was the end of it for all time, at Ala Moana.

And it just seems to me that — and I’m not going to be around — but if I’m the ghost of the past 50 years from now and I look at Honolulu I have two alternative visions of Honolulu that I can see at the time: One is with a rail project that goes to Ala Moana at least, and one is the status quo and let’s abandon it — I know which one looks far better in 50 years from the perspective of this city.

I’ve never been one to walk away from the big picture. It’s highly problematic right now, of course, because we are facing some very, very difficult questions and challenges and problems if one is going to continue that project as originally envisioned, (which will) require an increased revenue source. There’s no way around that. And so you’ve got to either come up with new federal funding or new state funding or new taxes or extending taxes that we thought we were going to sunset at some point. And those are the stark realities of the project right now.

I continue to believe that we should try to find those answers and continue the project. I’m not optimistic about the federal government just ponying up some more money. There is a major credibility issue by the feds in general and the FTA in particular, and by my colleagues in Congress who have watched this project for a long, long time. And the congressional delegation has been very focused on assuring that the full federal funding of $1.5 billion comes to Hawaii.

But at this point there has to be a specific, very, very defensible and very, very solid and sound financial plan, operational plan, construction plan.

State and county leaders are going to have to make those tough decisions, along with everybody else if they’re going to go in that direction. They need to say, “This is what we’re all going to do.” And until that happens, it’s very difficult to go to the federal government and say, “Continue to fund this project,” or for that matter even provide further funding.

Are you going to run again next year?

I’m a candidate for reelection, yes. My papers are officially filed with the Federal Election Commission (to be a) certified candidate for election in 2022.

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