Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz Thursday in a wide-ranging interview. He expressed support for vaccine passports, a desire to reform the filibuster and a concern for what he views as rising authoritarianism on the political right. Schatz began the interview with his take on the state of things in Washington, D.C., and the country as a whole. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories.

Schatz: I’m feeling optimistic for the country, I’m feeling optimistic for the state of Hawaii. I’m generally an optimistic person and I even maintained my optimism through the last four years. But I think we have lots of reasons to feel this way now. Having the trifecta — the House, the Senate and the presidency — puts us in a unique position to actually deliver on the promises that we made during the election season.

The vaccination trajectory looks good in Hawaii, and continues to improve. I am, for the first time in 14 months or so, feeling like the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming car, but rather that we will finally be on the other end of this both in terms of our health situation and in terms of economics.

My focus for the last 100 or so days has been exclusively COVID-19 relief, and the American Rescue Plan and making sure that the plan itself reflected my priorities and values and specifically that Hawaii didn’t get left out. We did real well on the American Rescue Plan.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz spoke with Civil Beat editors and reporters from his Honolulu office via Zoom. Screenshot

This is the most focused on regular people, and CARES in terms of dollar amounts was focused on stabilizing markets and big institutions, the airlines, Wall Street and all the rest of it. The American Rescue Plan is really different and it is bottom-up economics.

So my focus now is the implementation of the American Rescue Plan. It’s massive and state government and local leaders are going to need some guidance and some assistance in terms of executing on those funds. And then it moves to the American Jobs Plan which is the infrastructure package.

And I think of it as traditional infrastructure, plus climate and resilience infrastructure. Both categories of spending could be tremendously beneficial to Hawaii.

I do want to follow up with the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the upcoming American Families Plan. There’s been a lot of talk in the media that Joe Biden, remarkably, might be on a FDR or LBJ level in terms of transforming government. Is it really possible that this new administration can pull off this New Deal?

I think so. Look, you don’t know until you start moving along. But first of all I think it’s fascinating that if you poll the American Jobs Plan, it’s reasonably popular. If you tell folks that the American jobs plan is paid for by taxes on the most profitable corporations in American history — and you don’t even have to be pejorative about it — and when you explain that it’s coming primarily from taxes on the very wealthy, not just the upper middle class professionals but the extraordinarily wealthy, it becomes way more popular. Because there is an instinct that is correct out there, that income inequality is no longer just something that some wonks complain about. It is tearing our society apart, and so, yeah, I think it’s possible.

Part of this is actually just a political calculus. Democrats are disabling their policy objectives if we allow everyone to get freaked out about the deficits when we’re in charge and then deficit spend through tax cuts and other things when the Republicans are in charge. So I’m quite hopeful. And I think it is flying on the back of a reasonably popular president.

And Republicans want to get to yes on infrastructure. There’s a saying that is increasingly common in the Senate, which is vote no, hope yes. Which is they vote no, but they hope it passes so that they can go home and take credit for it. And so we may end up seeing that phenomenon again.

Where do you stand on the filibuster? (Democratic Sen.) Joe Manchin in particular said he doesn’t want to change that. What do you think is going to happen in terms of changing the rules?

I think it’s time to reform the filibuster. The filibuster was not enshrined in the Constitution. It is from a different era. And it was primarily used for decades to block civil rights legislation. I mean, those were the instances in which it was most famously used. And I came into the Senate thinking that I was pro-filibuster because I like the idea of forcing Democrats and Republicans to work together. But that only works if there’s good behavior. That only works if there’s good will. And to the extent that Mitch McConnell has made it clear that his job is to try to dismantle and disable the Biden presidency, then I think we just have to move on.

And this isn’t a retaliatory thing. This is just we got elected to do things, not to fuss around and argue over cloture votes on things that should pass almost instantaneously. We’re the only major legislative body on the planet that uses a 60 vote threshold or a 60% threshold for major legislation.

I think it’s time to move on. I do worry about the Senate and the future of the Senate. But I think the solution is not to imagine that we can go back to 1977 and the old Senate. That old Senate is gone because you’ve replaced a lot of people who liked to work on a bipartisan basis with a lot of people who like to not work on a bipartisan basis. And so if we’re not able to find bipartisan consensus, then we’re just going to have to move on and be a majoritarian body like every other legislature in the world.

And how many votes does it take to get rid of the filibuster?

It takes a slim majority. And to your second question. Yeah, Joe Manchin is not for it. And what actually worries me a bit about the situation over the next six months is that there’s a lot of magical thinking about what’s going to change Joe Manchin’s mind. And so one thing he has talked about is that he’s open to a talking filibuster right now.

Just mechanically, the way to block a bill is you have your staffer email the cloakroom and say block the bill. And it’s so painless, right? It is not “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.” You don’t have to stand there and actually deliver the filibuster.

And so one incremental reform, which might end up being pretty healthy for the institution is what if you had to stand there and actually filibuster? Because the idea was that this was supposed to be a once in a career sort of moment to stand your ground, not a routine way to block routine legislation from even being considered. Those are some of the things that we’re considering.

How are you feeling about how the state is handling the virus response these days and state spending of the federal dollars in particular? I know you had some concerns about that at one point, but what’s your sense of it these days?

So I think we’re doing most of the right stuff on virus response. And I have been periodically critical, not every week or anything, but I’ve weighed in when I thought things were kind of going sideways, for instance, with contact tracing. And I think maybe more recently on the education side. But I think it’s worth saying we’re doing extraordinarily well on vaccinations.

I’m so proud of our state. I think it’s a cultural thing. I think it is also that because we’re an island state — you can assemble the health care leaders of the state, including not-for-profits, Native Hawaiian health care systems, insurers, the state government, the county government and actually cover the geographic and demographic areas. And we understand the terrain so well and we work so well together.

Staff assist with checking seniors’ temperature upon arrival at the Blaisdell Concert Hall during COVID-19 vaccinations. January 25, 2021
Checking temperatures at the Blaisdell Concert Hall during COVID-19 vaccinations in January. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Where I think we have work to do is we still have a lot of kids not in school. And there is plenty of research now that kids could be in school physically a little more than they currently are now. I’ve spoken with the superintendent and they got moving on the K-6 side, but I think the next tranche has to be 7 through 12.

And I do think that the idea of school empowerment and principal empowerment is a whole separate argument about education policy in another context.

But in a pandemic, I don’t think you should be putting it on principals or complex area superintendents to make essentially public health choices. If Dr. Sarah Kemble (the state epidemiologist) says — and she says this — that it is safe, in fact safer for kids to be in school, then that should be not just a recommendation for consideration, but that should be how we approach schools.

Now, the CDC has this social distancing requirement that may not be executable at the most crowded public high schools. And so there may have to be some exceptions in those instances. But I think the default assumption should be get everybody back in school. We can do this safely.

And kids are losing too much academically, socially, in terms of their mental health, in terms of their physical health, in terms of the lack of participation in sports. It’s a really bad situation.

It also has an economic impact, which is that people can’t go back to work until their kids are back in school. Because if you’ve got a 12-year-old, you can’t just say, “OK, good luck on your Zooms today.” You’ve got to supervise that process.

And so I do think we need to make more progress in that area.

If the CDC is telling us that it’s safe to do something, we should probably let it happen.

And I also think that to the extent that we should be proud that we followed CDC guidelines, that we should also follow CDC guidelines when they’re telling us it’s safe to open up a little bit.

I think requiring people to wear masks — let me be crisp here — requiring people who have been vaccinated and who are distant from others and who are outdoors to wear masks is performative. And that’s all it is. To the extent that I have been relying on public health research and science and expertise, and that for the last 14 months, most of that has been in the direction of caution.

We need to recognize that especially people in Hawaii have been really good about compliance for the most part. And we should loosen up a little wherever we can just to indicate that we understand this has been a struggle and that people have been making sacrifices. We will never be Texas or Florida in terms of just letting loose on restrictions. But we should listen to the science. And if the CDC is telling us that it’s safe to do something, we should probably let it happen.

And I would include in that category the ability to come into the state of Hawaii or travel within the state of Hawaii if you have proof of vaccination.

This is not yet a criticism, but just an encouragement that we start to pivot towards normalizing our relationship with this disease. Assuming it may never go away completely, that the strategy here is vaccinations, social distancing where appropriate, but also allowing people to do healthy things like visit their family, hug their grandkids and go for a jog.

So you would support a sort of a vaccine passport for travel: if you’re vaccinated, you can fly into Hawaii? I know they’re going to try that interisland here a bit, but you have to have been vaccinated in Hawaii, apparently, to take advantage of that.

So, yeah, I would, although I hate the phrase passport personally, because it reverberates in ways that make civil libertarians very concerned.

If you come to Hawaii right now you need a negative PCR test and we’re saying we’ll give you an exception if you can provide proof of vaccination. I have asked a couple of experts whether they would feel safer being on a plane full of people with a negative PCR test or full of vaccinated individuals. And they have told me they would rather be on a plane full of vaccinated individuals. And so, again, let’s just follow the science now.

Some of this is a logistics question, in terms of making the Safe Travels compatible with these vaccine cards and preventing fraud and all the rest of it. But look, if someone is determined to come to Hawaii and commit fraud, they’re going to do so. Whether they produce a fake email with a negative PCR result or they produce a fake proof of vaccine, those (individuals) as a percentage of the whole are going to be tiny. And I’m not sure that we have the law enforcement or investigatory resources to prevent people from doing incredibly irresponsible things. And right now, it’s no more difficult to fraudulently produce a PCR test than it is to produce the vaccine card.

Senator, have you expressed your thoughts to the governor? 

Yeah, we’re in constant contact. And I’m trying to be a facilitator and a convener and a shuttle diplomat where appropriate. And then periodically, I don’t see things the same way as Gov. Ige. But he’s the governor and I’m just a federal legislator.

So do you have to get a negative test when you fly in?

No, I have an exemption as a member of Congress. We have an exemption to fly back and forth. But I do get a negative test anyway. I get tested very frequently.

My completely different subject question is about this police shooting involving South Africa. Have you been contacted by the U.S. embassy or have you been much in the loop on that and the diplomatic crisis there seems to be over it?

I have not been contacted by the embassy and I want to be precise, because obviously the facts are still unfolding.

But I do think that the (Honolulu Police Department) just needs to overhaul the way they communicate with the public. And it’s not just a question of frequency and availability. It’s also a question of transparency.

There doesn’t appear to be a standard procedure as it relates to releasing body cam(era) footage. And they seem to release it when they think it shows the department in a favorable light and not when it doesn’t. And so I’d just like to see a little more consistency.

The South African news outlet IOL reported on people protesting Myeni’s death at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. Screenshot: IOL

Obviously, this is not primarily my kuleana. My kuleana is, you know, working with my buddy (New Jersey Sen.) Cory Booker on policing reforms and criminal justice reforms. My particular project is that I’ve been the author of the bill that reforms the 1033 Program, which transfers military equipment to police departments. And that’s been my bill for a number of years. And we made some progress last year on a bipartisan basis.

But my observation just generally speaking, is that (HPD has) to be consistent with what they disclose, how they disclose it and how quickly they disclose it. But the embassy hasn’t talked to me.

Would there be anything going on in Congress or at the federal level that would help the situation in Hawaii when it comes to police transparency, misconduct, accountability, that kind of thing?

Well, I think that the big issue that’s being considered is qualified immunity. We want to move this bill on a bipartisan basis. (South Carolina Sen.) Tim Scott and and Cory Booker are in a rather quiet but constructive negotiation. So even though Cory is one of my closest friends in the Senate, I don’t know what’s in that compromise bill yet because it’s got to be very close. Hold on until it’s rolled out.

A few questions on totally different topic areas. The first one is earmarks. They’re back. And I wanted to know if there was anything that you could share with us about how that process is going to play out in the Senate, when we can expect to see sort of the list of projects that you are going to ask for, and what a few of those might be like. What are you aiming for?

So let me just sort of back up. I’m very strongly for the return of earmarks. And the reason is that we’re the Article I branch in the Constitution. We actually have the purse strings. And so I always found it bizarre that we would cough up, say, fully a fourth of our constitutional power to the executive branch.

But obviously there were abuses in the past, and so what’s going to be implemented is the following: In terms of spending, there’s going to be a 1% cap on all discretionary spending. There will be a prohibition on earmarks for for-profit entities, so just to nonprofits and governments. And all of this will be disclosed, not just the ones that get funded but the applications themselves will get disclosed on the Appropriations Committee website as well as on my website. So that’s the process.

It’s a small dollar amount thing here. I suppose we’re not actually talking about small dollar amounts, but relative to the size of the federal budget, we’re talking about single digit millions. So if folks want to do the Lahaina bypass with earmarks it will take 170 years. We should think of this as small projects that haven’t been given enough attention by either the executive or legislative branch, for whatever set of reasons.

The next question has to do with Honolulu rail, which of course, I feel like you get asked about a lot.

You know, I don’t speak for anybody but myself, but my sense is that everybody still wants to finish this darn thing. That it’s maddening. It’s expensive. It’s frustrating. And you can make a reasonable argument that there are so many mistakes that were made along the way that the public is right to be lacking faith in a plan going forward.

But we’re in a situation where we have bad choices and worse choices, and I still believe that the worst choice is to stop this thing before you reach a population center. Because then you’ve got a thing that fundamentally doesn’t work. And so I’m going to try to help us find a pathway. And whoever is working with or for HART, whoever is working at the city side, whoever is at the Legislature, they’ve got to be a partner in this because this has got to be a team effort.

So how do you impart that message to Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who has said that he’s now open to stopping it short of Ala Moana?

Well, I don’t think Rick and I are very far apart on this, actually. I think what he was saying is, “Look, if we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money.” Right. And if you were mayor and you said you’re $3 billion dollars short and then the Legislature says we’re not providing any additional money, and then the Congress says if you don’t get any additional money from the locals, there’s no money, there’s no additional money from the feds, then it’s academic.

We’re  in a situation where we have bad choices and worse choices, and I still believe that the worst choice is to stop this thing before you reach a population center.

And so I don’t think he was expressing a preference for stopping short of downtown Honolulu. I think he was just telling the truth about what the consequences would be if the Legislature and the City Council don’t provide the revenue that puts me in a position to try to go and chase additional revenue.

One other question, and this is jumping to a completely different topic we’ve been writing a lot about — initiatives to transform Hawaii’s economy and get away from such dependence on tourism. And I know that you just introduced an act for hotel workers, to help support them. I wonder if you can just talk big picture. I mean, was it silly to think the pandemic would be an opportunity to diversify Hawaii’s economy? And is that even possible?

Well, I believe in the opportunities that small-scale agriculture, that higher education, that high tech in particular, clean energy tech, that culturally grounded tourism represent. But where I think we do a disservice as politicians to the public is in those situations in which we describe the Hawaii we want to build and then imagine that it’s going to just arrive next Monday. All of those things, especially the clean technology, the native tourism, the ag — it takes a lot of doing. It takes programs, it takes funding, it takes a reorientation of both the public and the private sector. It takes a workforce that may not be ready for all of that.

And so these are objectives that we should work towards. But in the meantime, it is cold comfort to a hotel worker who’s still waiting to be called back to imagine that they’re going to work in some industry that doesn’t yet exist.

Passengers walk up ramp to board a Hawaiian Airlines flight bound to Honolulu.
At the Kona airport, passengers walk up a ramp to board a Hawaiian Airlines flight bound to Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And so I am always of two minds. I am about making sure that we meet our own collective material needs in the short run and then work towards a better, more just, more diverse, more sustainable society in the medium run. This is not the kind of thing you can snap your fingers and accomplish. And I believe people should spend more time doing the work rather than just sort of refining their rhetorical flourishes as it relates to sustainability. This stuff’s hard and it requires a commitment and work over a long period of time, and that’s my focus.

I wanted to ask you about the American Jobs Plan. You kind of distinguish between this idea of traditional infrastructure and then infrastructure that’s more related to climate. And I just wanted to ask you if there were any specific objectives, goals, hopes, very specific things that you would like to see happen in Hawaii through the American Jobs Plan.

Three things come to mind. The first is grid resilience and grid infrastructure. We’ve been on the bleeding edge of integrating renewables into our grid. And I remember in 1999, talking to the Hawaiian Electric Co. folks who thought that the maximum percentage of renewable energy that could be on the grid was around 15%. And we forced them to innovate into a space where now we’re committed collectively, the state government and the electric utility itself, to 100% clean energy because the technology has evolved so quickly. We’re going to need more infrastructure for that.

And some of that, interestingly, is broadband infrastructure. The University of Hawaii has to send data to Guam sometimes for processing. The cloud is in Arizona. And so one thing that would help the entire state of Hawaii is additional broadband infrastructure, which is very likely to look different from what we have on the continent.

And then the other category is water. Safe drinking water is a high priority for me. And this is something I’ve learned through my chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Two million Americans right now don’t have access to safe drinking water, 2 million Americans. And that just has to be fixed.

And then finally, we have a cesspool problem on our neighbor islands where they’re really not going to be complying with the Clean Water Act unless we provide them the infrastructure, either for big sewer systems or small distributed sewage management systems or something even more distributed like the Gates toilet. That is just sort of a better version of what they’re currently doing.

You’ve placed a lot of emphasis on the need for U.S. policy to focus on the Oceania region and the Pacific island nations. And then, of course, the context of this is our concerns about competition with China and that China is really gaining sway with these small nations and that that could pose a danger to U.S. foreign policy. Who’s winning in that and who’s winning the battle for the hearts of these island nations?

We’ve been absent in this conversation. The United States has been essentially absent and treated these island nations as way stations and bases, but not even strategic partners. And so my point to my colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee is that as you think about our Asia-Pacific strategy, remember — it’s you shouldn’t race all the way from California to the South China Sea and ignore everything in between.

And we have a lot of allies, long-term allies throughout Oceania. And so the bill that I introduced, which was substantially adopted by the Foreign Relations Committee, encourages partnerships on IUU — illegal fishing — establishes a security dialogue for Oceania, hopefully in Honolulu, and asks USAID and the Peace Corps to do more work in Oceania on disaster preparation, disaster response and climate mitigation. And it was adopted unanimously. We didn’t even have Republicans opposing it. So I think we’re winning the argument.

U.S. officials worry that China is gaining economic and political ground in Pacific island nations. Here, villagers in Pohnpei celebrate with a roasted pig. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

I will say that that may be because no one’s engaged in the argument other than me, and that’s just fine. Not everything has to be on “Meet the Press” and therefore polarized. So we’ve been kind of quietly doing this work.

What President Obama did in terms of elevating island nations was pretty extraordinary. And all of that was energized because you had a president who was from an island and who understood how important it was. And so part of what I’ve been doing with the State Department, in addition to the legislative side, is every nominee that comes in who has any jurisdiction over there is just to remind them that these are heads of state. Now, they may be heads of states of places that are relatively small by population and certainly far away. But they’re no less a head of state than Macron or Merkel. And so it doesn’t cost us much to respect them.

It’s now four months to the day since the Capitol insurrection. And I guess my main question is, after what happened these last four years, after what happened on Jan. 6, what is happening now with the infighting in the Republican Party — is bipartisanship really ever going to come back to Washington, D.C., and the country?

It’s a good question, and I don’t think anybody quite knows the answer to that. You know, my focus here as I think about the threat of authoritarianism — and it is real because you now have the leader of the Republican Party expressly against upholding free and fair elections. So this isn’t a theoretical thing, this isn’t just some rhetorical flourish from a Democrat. This is actually what’s happened. And you’ve got, as a result, half the Republican Party, maybe a little more than half the Republican Party, and in terms of voters, half the country who think the election was stolen. And that is not a sustainable position for democracy.

So there’s two things that we have to work on. First, Democrats have to deliver on what they promised, which is we didn’t run on stopping authoritarianism. We ran on COVID-19 relief, economic fairness, infrastructure, climate justice. Those are the things that energized our vote. And I think we have to deliver on that side.

But that is not to dismiss the very real risk that because there’s a purge going on right now in the Republican Party, it’s not at all clear to me that if it’s four years from now and there’s a similar attempt to upend the Electoral College certification, that we would have critical mass on the Republican side to do the adult thing. And so that worries me very, very much.

I do think that you have to be of two minds — you have to be focused on delivering results, but you also have to be wary of what is happening to democracy itself. And if you focus on one thing to the exclusion of the other, I think that’s risky and irresponsible.

We’re going to have to keep two thoughts in our own mind, (one of) which is this thing really is an existential threat to the American experiment. And perhaps yelling about it every morning is not the best way to push back against it, but rather just to do popular things.

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