The U.S. special envoy working on the treaties laid out a bit of what is in the agreements, which are key to the U.S. strategy in the Pacific.

WASHINGTON — Business and political leaders attending a Hawaii policy summit on Wednesday got a preview of the negotiations between the U.S. and Micronesian nations to renew long-standing treaties.

Day 2 of “Hawaii on the Hill” began with an hours-long policy summit in which several high ranking officials, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and key members of President Joe Biden’s administration talked about critical issues for Hawaii. 

Ambassador Joseph Yun provided an update on the status of negotiations for the Compacts of Free Association, which are set to expire this year and next. 

The compacts, or COFA as they’re often referred to, are treaties with the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands that allow the U.S. military access to the countries in exchange for financial assistance and special immigration status for COFA citizens that allow them to legally live, work and go to school in the U.S.  

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, in the red jacket, hosted dozens of business leaders and politicians for Hawaii on the Hill. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

Yun, the Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations, said that Congress will soon receive a legislative package to renew the COFA agreements, which has become increasingly critical to U.S. national security interests in the Pacific as China attempts to make inroads there. 

The new agreement will provide $6.5 billion in aid over the next 20 years, he told the gathering.

He said it also calls on Congress to expand health care benefits to veterans living in the COFA nations and provide access to social safety net programs for migrants already living in the U.S.

“I do think it’s a decent value and I look forward to justifying it to members of our Congress,” Yun said. “And with that I think we can secure the compact states as our true partners for many decades to come.” 

Ambassador Joseph Yun said the new COFA agreements include special provisions to provide more benefits to citizens of the freely associated states. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

Dozens of business leaders and politicians attended Wednesday’s event as well as top state officials, including Jimmy Tokioka, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and Blake Oshiro, a special advisor to Gov. Josh Green. 

A number of state legislators also made the trip to the annual event, including Reps. Kirsten Kahaloa and Darius Kila and Big Island Sen. Tim Richards.  

The participants had a wide range of questions for the federal officials who took part in the event, including several about the upcoming farm bill, which will set the agenda for agriculture and food nutrition in the country for the next five years, and ways to address the workforce shortage in the islands.

Housing was a focal point of discussion during Wednesday’s summit, which is not surprising given the challenges many in the islands face when it comes to finding an affordable place to live. 

Home prices soared during the pandemic and the median price for a single family home rose to more than $1 million in some parts of the state. 

Hawaii also continues to have one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation despite persistent efforts by lawmakers and local officials to address the problem.

Marcia Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, spoke to attendees about what her agency can do to help with the crisis. She said HUD is fully aware of the struggles in the islands and is open to working with officials to find solutions.  

But she said it is also up to policymakers to take the initiative to spend the federal dollars that are already there. 

The American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act pumped billions of dollars into various agencies and programs that can be used to help address the housing crisis, she said, and it would be a shame to see those dollars go unused.

Secretary Marcia Fudge encouraged Hawaii officials to take advantage of federal funding while they can. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

She said the urgency is even greater given the current climate in Congress, where Republicans in the House used the debt ceiling debate to try to clawback money and resources that have already been approved. 

“Congress is doing everything they can to find the resources they can bring back,” Fudge said. “Don’t let them take yours. Make a plan.” 

Schumer brought a lighter touch to the event. 

Schumer was at the inaugural Hawaii on the Hill in 2014, and has been a regular ever since.

He said it’s also the first place he ever tried Spam musubi.

“Mazie introduced me to Spam musubi at that first one, and I have to say that my Brooklyn palate is cultivated,” Schumer said.  

While Schumer addressed some of Democrats’ upcoming policy priorities, which include appointing as many judges as possible to the federal bench while Biden is still president and introducing legislation to cap the price of insulin for all Americans as $35, he spent much of his time praising Hirono, who is up for election in 2024.

“I cannot tell you how important she is to our caucus,” Schumer said. “This is a woman who has such strength and conviction, and we’ve all seen that time and time again, but she also combines that strength and conviction with a four-letter word — nice.” 

Schumer highlighted Hirono’s legislation that was signed into law in 2021 to strengthen enforcement of anti-Asian hate crimes that spiked during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He also pointed to the success that she and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz have had in making sure that Hawaii receives its “fair share” of federal money, putting them in the same league as late-U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who was known as a legendary appropriator. 

“You got a great senator,” Schumer said of Hirono. “I hope you keep her.” 

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer eat Spam musubi during the Taste of Hawaii. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

The policy summit was followed up with celebration of Hawaii food and drink known as the Taste of Hawaii. 

The event is often considered one of the highlights of Hawaii on the Hill in that it showcases dozens of businesses from the islands, from Koloa Rum and Maui Brewing Co. to Orchid Lei and Kauai Kookie. 

Hundreds of people attend the event, including congressional staffers and some of the most influential politicians in Washington.

Hirono, who helps organize Hawaii on the Hill with the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said the Taste of Hawaii is a nice outlet for island businesses to share their goods with a broader audience in the nation’s capital, but she also said the policy discussions that take place are just as valuable.

“That connection and the relationships that can arise from all that is very important,” she said.

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