Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono last week in a wide-ranging interview. She began with her priorities on helping the Biden administration accomplish its legislative agenda. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories.
The top of mind (for me) is to help President Biden enact his priorities. That would be the American Jobs Act, the American Families Act, because those are the things we need to do to get our economy back to some level of normalcy. And to help our American people get back to work because this pandemic has resulted in millions of women leaving the workforce to take care of their children who are not in school. There were a lot of factors that impacted the number of women who left the workforce. And in order to enable them to get back, they need affordable, accessible child care. They need paid family leave.
And in addition, we have a Voting Rights Act. And we need the George Floyd (Justice in) Policing Act. I’d like to see immigration tackled. There is an entire array of things that we ought to be working on.
Well, we’re eager to ask you about that. Here’s a tweet from you from yesterday: “Mitch McConnell says that his goal is to make sure that Joe Biden doesn’t accomplish major legislation like the infrastructure bill so that Republicans can take back the Senate. I believe him when he says that and so should you.” So my question to you is, what are you going to do about Mr. McConnell’s opposition to Mr. Biden’s agenda?
This is why pretty early on I said that we need to change the filibuster, either to get rid of it entirely or to reform it in a way that will require a talking filibuster so that we can get things enacted without 60 votes, which will not happen if Mitch McConnell gets his way. And he has every intention of getting his way to block any major legislation that Joe Biden wants.
Do you see your colleague from Arizona, Senator Sinema, or your colleague from West Virginia, Senator Manchin, changing their positions on the filibuster? Right now, they’re against getting rid of it.
Not at the moment. I would love to get these things done in a bipartisan way, but that requires the Republicans to meet us, at least halfway. That’s not really happening.
So at some point, I hope that my two colleagues will say to themselves that if we’re going to get any of these things done, we are going to need to change the filibuster rules or use reconciliation as a process to get these things done.
That’s the only way that we got the (American) Rescue plan done. And not a single Republican voted for this measure that helped Hawaii and every other state — not a single Republican. But then they went out and said, “Look, you’re getting your checks and, you know, isn’t that great?”
Speaking of bipartisanship, five of your Republican colleagues and five of your Democratic colleagues have come up with an infrastructure plan. Is this the compromise that is going to work out for this?
Much of their plan is already money that has been designated. It is far less than the $4 trillion that Joe Biden wanted for his Family Plan, as well as the Jobs Plan. And at the same time there’s a huge gap in terms of the amount of money being put forward.
The second part is how it’s going to be paid for. And they say that there’s not going to be tax increases. But if they’re going to raise user fees — basically those are tax increases on middle class families and the people who are least able to absorb increases in the gasoline tax, for example.
So those are two big parts of what they’re coming up with. I haven’t seen the specifics either. But I think it’ll be a challenge to get everyone to vote for it. I’m keeping an open mind as we go forward because I think it is important for us to enact a big infrastructure bill.
When the White House initially proposed this, the plan was to tax the wealthy and to tax corporations. Is that the way to pay for the infrastructure bill?
Yes. Because right now we know that the richest people in our country and the richest corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes. And so I think that that is where we should get the money to pay for the needs of our American people.
I’m wondering what can Democrats do about the so-called Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema problem that you guys are facing. You’d need 51 votes even to do reconciliation. And if they’re not on board, you’re kind of stuck. How do you get anything done?
I start with the proposition that Democrats actually want to do those things that help people as opposed to screwing them over. And so both Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have supported the Rescue bill — massive legislation that helps our community. So I start with that awareness that they want to get things done.
If they are going to continue to not want to look at filibuster reform as a way to do it, then we are looking at reconciliation as a process which they have participated in with regard to the Rescue Plan. I think that they are going to be open to that as a way to get things done once they come to the conclusion that we are not going to be able to pass the kind of legislation I’m talking about in a bipartisan way.
We’re not going to give up on the need to promote everyone’s right to vote.
The Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii — once again, it is not in the Pentagon’s budget request. Are you seeking to pursue getting it funded again?
I have asked (Defense) Secretary (Lloyd) Austin and others to provide me with a good explanation of why this radar that was deemed necessary for the protection of Hawaii as well as part of our national security defense system, our missile defense system, why all of a sudden it’s not deemed necessary. So far, I haven’t been provided that kind of justification. I have been told by them that Hawaii is protected today, but this radar is for the protection of Hawaii in the future.
My request to them is tell me how Hawaii is going to be protected in 2025, which is the kind of time frame that justified the original radar. I’m waiting for that. And I have told them that if that doesn’t come forward, if they don’t have some other way that Hawaii will remain protected, then I’m going to push for the funding that is necessary to keep this issue, HDR-H, going.
With you heading the Seapower Committee, I’m curious about your thoughts on the upcoming budget for the Pentagon. We’ve been saying that China is the facing threat, but the latest budget shows that they’re intending the Navy to actually shrink rather than grow while the Chinese Navy is expanding its fleet.
We are going to need to deal with China by making sure that the assets, all the ships and the planes and all of the assets that we have, are superior to what the Chinese have. We are still looking at a 355-ship Navy, and that’s where they’re going. And the administration provided a top-line budget for the Department of Defense to work on. Some difficult decisions were made by the DOD, including the Navy — for example, cutting one of the destroyers, the replacement of which will mean restoring $7 billion dollars to the ship-building budget.
So those discussions are continuing, but we have a commitment to a different kind, probably a different configuration, and also the kinds of ships that we will need to contend with China and possibly Russia. Those are our near-peer competitors.
I think we’re looking at smaller ships, for example, a more agile naval force that includes the assets for the Marines. And to do those kinds of changes will require us to make sure that we’ve done the R&D and everything else that we need — to have the kind of competitive advantage that we’re looking for.
There have been some concerns about the readiness of our current fleets and the conditions of our shipyards. I know some of your colleagues have talked about the need to really upgrade the shipyards and get them ready for that.
I and the members of my Seapower subcommittee are very much committed to the shipyard modernization program. And this is a multi-year program. We need to make sure that the ships that we currently have and the new ships that are going to come online are adequately prepared, which means that our shipyards — particularly our four public shipyards, of which Pearl Harbor shipyard is one — that they are modernized and that we need to spend the money to make sure our shipyards have the kind of tools they need to be efficient in ship repair. So, yes, we’re going in that direction.
However, the ship and shipyard modernization program has not received adequate funding, and that is one of the reasons that some of us have signed on to a bill that would put the shipyard modernization funding into the infrastructure bill.
My question deals with House Bill 613, passed by the Legislature this year. It basically specifies how the Department of Education here should be using American Rescue Plan funding, about $412 million that was allocated to the Hawaii DOE. There’s been some pushback by state education officials that this is legislative overreach and not in their purview to prescribe the appropriate uses for federal funding. It hasn’t been signed yet. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that.
Frankly, when we passed the American Rescue Plan and sent so much money to enable our schools all across the country to reopen, I wasn’t thinking about the state legislators getting into the picture. My view is basically that I expect the Department of Education to create an environment where our kids can get back to school safely, and that is where I’m coming from. So if the Legislature prescribes too much of what needs to happen, I think that that is not particularly the way that I would go. And so I take it, it’s now up to the governor. I guess there are calls for him to veto that bill.
But I just want to be really clear where we were coming from at the federal level, which was we need to get our schools open. I have talked with teachers. I have talked with students. There’s learning difficulties that have arisen as a result of them having to do distance learning. We all recognize how tough a job it is to teach as all our kids are at home and parents are trying to figure out how to enable them to learn. I kind of look at the educators as making the appropriate decisions based on the safety of the environment to enable our kids to get back to school safely.
Do you think there is any situation or circumstance in which K-12 distance learning may be appropriate based on what we’ve learned from the past year and a half?
I think there may be some circumstances where distance learning is going to be in the mix and that’s going to be based on what is good for the kids. There are issues relating to whether the children are all vaccinated. But I will say that from talking with the teachers and talking with students particularly, that most of them would prefer in-classroom teaching and learning.
Recently a new state commission was formed here in Hawaii to improve civic education and improve civic awareness among citizens. How do you believe state leaders can improve the state of civics education in the education system or just among citizens in general?
I think it is really important for all of us to understand that there are such things as facts and that we should look at facts in determining the decisions that we make. And we now have a country where millions of people apparently still believe that (the 2020) election was stolen from the former president. Now, that is what I call craziness. There’s no such thing as alternative facts.
So part of it is civics education, the commitment that we have to participate in voting and all of that. I think that we need to teach history in an accurate way. There’s a lot to our country’s history that we are not adequately teaching our kids.
The big news in D.C. is that apparently the Justice Department under President Trump was spying, essentially, on House Democrats on the Intelligence Committee and apparently Apple is involved as well. What’s your reaction to this?
It’s very shocking, but also not particularly unexpected when you have a president who was very eager to get information on Adam Schiff and others. It is sadly not surprising — a total abuse of power, it seems to me — and that’s why we should conduct hearings. I hope that former attorneys general Sessions and Barr will come voluntarily, but if not, they should be subpoenaed. In addition, I know that the Justice Department itself is going to have the inspector general investigate what happened, who authorized this, what was it for. And those decisions and discussions and investigations need to occur. It’s pretty astounding but sadly not particularly surprising.
We’ve been talking about Red Hill for a very long time. Is it the Congress that needs to tell the Navy we’re going to give you money to move those (fuel) tanks? How can we stop having this threat of damaging the aquifers on Oahu?
Well, first and foremost, the entire congressional delegation has been very committed to making sure that our groundwater is not contaminated. And as we continue to pay attention to Red Hill, we should deal with facts. There is an investigation going on about what led to this release. And I have been told that the initial response was that it was contained. And so they do not call that a spill. And at the same time, the response from the Navy has been to put in the monitors and all of that. And so it is the state Department of Health, it is the EPA and the Navy that have an agreement as to what needs to happen with regard to these tanks.
We also should understand that these storage tanks are massive and they provide the fuel that is needed for our military to do their jobs here. And the removal of these tanks is not an easy matter either. But we should be very committed to making sure that the groundwater is not contaminated. But again, let us deal with facts, and that’s what I’m focused on.
It was pretty remarkable to see the kind of bipartisanship on the Asian hate crimes bill, in such a divisive time. Is there a lesson you can learn from bringing the bill successfully and having it signed into law by the president, when it comes to other intractable issues?
That was a situation where when I first introduced that bill, I couldn’t get a single Republican to sponsor it. But at the same time, we saw the rise in hate crimes all across the country, particularly in places like New York. So nobody could turn their faces away from what was going on in the Asian American Pacific Islander community. So Chuck Schumer determined that this (was) a bill that we were going to just put on the floor for debate and a vote, and people began to pay attention to the bill.
And a Republican, Susan Collins, and I talked to each other and we were both very determined to broaden support for this bill. And we were able to come up with a compromise to enable us to do that. There were over 20 amendments, I think, that were filed against this bill. Basically, it was reduced to three, including one from (Republican) Ted Cruz. And at the end, it was really quite the day to see him ultimately vote for the bill.
There are probably other times when we could come together, but it requires the Republicans to negotiate in good faith. And that’s how the COVID-19 Hate Crimes bill got through negotiations.
Just this week, Republicans blocked the legislation on pay inequality. And it was the use of the filibuster. This is an issue you care about a great deal. Your reaction to that?
Equal pay for equal work has been on the books for decades and we’re not there yet. And so once again, this is Mitch McConnell using the 10 votes that we need to get things through. And it doesn’t bother him at all. And obviously, it doesn’t bother his caucus. And if they can’t even pass this bill — my goodness. And of course they also voted against the bipartisan commission to determine what happened on Jan. 6.
I wanted to ask a follow-up question about the anti-Asian hate law. I think the law provides money for education about racism. What kind of programs do you see being developed and if you see Hawaii at the forefront at all?
The law provides grants for this kind of education to be sent to our states and to organizations. I think that’s really important because of the fact that (even though) we passed a law does not mean that hearts and minds will follow. And people who have racial animus against Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, they’re not going to change (their) minds just because we passed a law. And it’s not just against AAPIs but against other targeted groups.
It definitely was symbolically, hugely important to the AAPI community that Congress was going to stand with those communities and to say we are not going to stand aside or stay silent while these kinds of totally unprovoked attacks were being perpetrated. They view themselves often as being invisible and discriminated against, so this was a hugely important position for Congress to take, that we stand with you.
We are not perfect, but we seek to create a country where people are treated equally.
And that includes a history of what’s happened to immigrants in our country, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the kind of discriminatory fervor that led to the act being passed interning 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, the Muslim ban. Civics education is learning about the truth about our country, not to mention, of course, the slavery in our country. And all of that needs to be taught. And that is why the law that we enacted brings attention to what we need to do.
Along the same lines, many in the Republican Party, in conservative circles, they don’t think that the 1619 project from The New York Times on slavery is worthwhile. You heard Mitch McConnell just the other day put down critical race theory, which is about trying to understand the systemic problems with racism in this country. This has to be frustrating to you.
The history of slavery in our country is something that we have never adequately faced as a country. How are we ever going to move forward if we don’t acknowledge that history of our country? And even after slavery was prohibited, we still have Jim Crow laws.
We are not perfect, but we seek to create a country where people are treated equally. And by the way, a huge part of the history is what happened to the native peoples of our country and the fact that we had hundreds of treaties with American Indian tribes, that we broke every single one of those treaties.
The Women’s Health Protection Act would expand access to abortion services. It’s before the Congress. You’ve also had this case in Mississippi, and I believe that that’s the one that’s going to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Tell us where you feel we are in terms of abortion rights in this country.
Oh, I think abortion rights are under attack more so now than ever, because all of the anti-abortion advocates and the state legislatures are passing hundreds of bills that will limit a woman’s right to choose or, in fact, pretty much stop abortions altogether in their states. And this is happening with lightning speed, in my view, because they know that these laws will be challenged and they would like to fast-track these challenges to the Supreme Court, where they expect a much more supportive Court that will be poised to strike down Roe v. Wade.
The three Trump justices — particularly Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — they are very clearly anti-abortion. And that means that a woman’s right to choose and control her own body will no longer be a constitutionally protected right. I’m grateful that Hawaii has a state law that protects a woman’s right to choose.
Last question for you is just to say these two words and get your reaction: Trump 2024.
Horrors. That means that we have not learned from the misuse of power, the abuse of power, that the rule of law did not apply to (Trump) — that we’re going to give this guy another chance to basically destroy democracy — that is how I see what happened under his regime, and it would be terrible for our country.
Privately, do you hear from some of your colleagues in the Senate on the Republican side saying, “I wish we could just be rid of this guy?”
It’s up to them to act on that kind of belief. They can talk about it behind closed doors, but I don’t see them stepping forward in any courageous way to say, “This is not a country that is going to base decisions on lies.” But too many of them are in that position, and they are not stepping up to tell the American people the truth.
Any final thoughts, Senator?
I think that this is a time when actually some big things can happen, and this pandemic has exposed a lot of the fault lines in our country, including economic disparity, including opportunities for women to get back to work. And this is a chance for us to make the kind of changes that will move our country forward and provide equal opportunities, justice for all.
These are not just words to us, these are aspirational goals that we should be moving toward. And we have actual bills that we could enact in this session of Congress to move us toward those goals. And that’s what I’m going to be fighting for.
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