Mazie Hirono on local education, her first weeks in Congress and how the war in Iraq is dominating the Democrat's progressive agenda
February 01, 2007
Last Saturday, on the afternoon of Jan. 27, Bob Watada walked to the microphone at one of the largest anti-war rallies that has yet sprawled across the National Mall in Washington D.C. He was there to speak for his son, U.S. Army Lt. Ehren Watada, who is currently awaiting court martial—and possible jail time—for refusing to fight in Iraq.
"We have to bring an end to blood oil!" Watada told the crowd The Washington Post later estimated numbered in the "tens of thousands." "We have to say to Congress enough is enough! The truth is a danger to the Bush empire! The army wants to make my son a political prisoner—a political prisoner not unlike those we condemn in other countries. We must tell Congress that people—you and I—are more important than corporate profits."
Even considering that he's defending his son's right to disobey what he considers an illegal order to fight in an illegal war, it's doubtful that Watada would have employed such fiery rhetoric had he not retired in 2005 after a decade as Hawai`i's Campaign Spending Commission executive director.
Twenty-four hours earlier, I was sitting with U.S. Congresswoman Mazie Hirono (D, 2nd District). Possessing a hatred of the war every bit as thoughtful as Watada's, Hirono campaigned last year on a progressive—and popular—troops-out-now platform.
"We should get out of the quagmire that is Iraq with a phased redeployment of U.S. forces that begins before the end of 2006," said her campaign website. To a small gathering of residents at the old Maui Booksellers in Wailuku that July, Hirono said simply, "We need to have a plan to get our troops out of Iraq."
Moderated now by the power and responsibility that comes from serving as one of nation's 435 elected Congressional representatives, Hirono was understandably less radical than Watada.
"The incompetence of the war is awesome in its entirety," she said before adding sadly that President George W. Bush's actions "portend a much longer time for us to be in Iraq."
Hirono said Congress would pass a non-binding resolution opposing Bush's 21,500-troop "Surge," though she stopped short of advocating an immediate end to the war.
"Even if we pull out, we have to be part of the rebuilding of Iraq," she said. "We have to get the rest of the Middle East engaged. Civil war and a descent into chaos is not in their interests, but we're not there yet because we're not talking to Iran, to Syria…"
Jan. 26 was Hirono's first trip back to Maui since getting elected to Congress. She has represented all of Hawai`i except for Honolulu in Congress for about a month. Sworn in on Jan. 4 with the rest of the 110th Congress, Hirono is a former state legislator, deputy attorney general and lieutenant governor.
After narrowly beating a wide field of candidates for the Democratic Party nomination last September, Hirono cruised to an easy victory over right-wing Republican Bob Hogue. An analysis of her campaign finances by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. shows her biggest donors were labor unions, lawyers and retired individuals—a typical profile for a progressive Democratic candidate.
During the race Hirono raised $1,397,037. Her most recent campaign filing shows $125,940 in debt, which isn't actually that bad for a freshman representative. On Jan. 16, National Public Radio reported that some freshmen have racked up close to $200,000 in debt—money they have to pay off in about six months, or risk getting a slow start in raising money for their 2008 races.
That's the price of running for Congress–something close to an eternal campaign. In any case, Hirono considers herself heir to the legacy of the late, unapologetically liberal Congresswoman Patsy Mink, rather than successor to the far more moderate Ed Case.
"Nancy Pelosi [the first female Speaker of the House] told me that Patsy had told her a long time ago that one day she would be speaker," Hirono told a small gathering of local residents and school officials at Maui High School's library during her Jan. 26 visit. "It's a really good time to be a member of Congress."
Since taking office, the U.S. House of Representatives has taken steps to distance itself from the previous Republican-led Congress, which became infamous as a mere instrument for approving President Bush's wars and domestic policies. The Pelosi-led House has already passed bills raising the minimum wage, adding new ethics rules to curb previous congressional excesses, legalizing stem cell research, lowering interest rates for college tuition and lowering prescription drug prices.
"The Democrats are so much more in touch with what working people need and want," Hirono said, trying to get through a cold. "But we averaged about 62 Republican votes for each of these bills."
Rather than called a "freshman," Hirono said the Democratic leadership in the House refers to her fellow rookies as "majority-making members." She said the Democrats are still trying to get used to running the House, having been in the all-but-powerless minority since early 1995.
"That's why you'll see members rushing to change their votes [on bills] sometimes," she said. "They forget they're in the majority and can vote yes now."
She also said this Congress would be working a lot harder than previous bodies. "The last few [Republican-led] Congresses went into recess soon after being sworn in," she said. "And then they only worked two to three days a week. We have a five-day work schedule that makes it difficult for me to come home every week.
"These are exciting times," she continued. "There's so much talk about dealing with global warming. Only this year has President Bush acknowledged that climate change is an issue."
Hirono, who sits on the Education and Labor Committee and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee—two of the largest and most popular in the House—will be able to deal with issues ranging from mass transit to the controversial No Child Left Behind program that Bush wants continued.
"No Child Left Behind comes before our subcommittee [on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education]," Hirono said. "That's going to be big... So much money—billions and billions of dollars—are going to the war. Even the good parts of No Child Left Behind are not being funded."
Hence Hirono's Jan. 26 visit to Maui High, where she got a briefing from five students on Project EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology)—a special program in which students take on computer-aided projects on their own initiative. In late February, the students who briefed Hirono will travel to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a competition involving 2,000 students nationwide.
"This is a really good program," Hirono said moments after she arrived at the school. The library was warm, only partially cooled by a fan, given that the air conditioning had recently gone out. She was surprised to hear that the program, which involves about 200 Maui High students, runs in every high school on the island but doesn't yet operate on Oahu.
Hirono spent about an hour and a half with the Project EAST students, who used a PowerPoint presentation to show the congresswoman their ambitious projects, including one that seeks to redesign the library in which we were sitting and another that involves students using a three dimensional computer modeling program to design a proposed multipurpose building for the campus. The students then showed Hirono their computer lab, and one of their project robots, which looked like a small truck chassis with a Gameboy mounted on top.
"The students told me there weren't enough hours in the day to do their work," Hirono said later. "That's a good sign."
After the Project EAST students went home—it was about 4 p.m. on a Friday, after all—Hirono returned to the library where two students videotaped a short interview with her about alternative energy. "We really do need to break our dependence on imported oil," she told them.
On Jan. 11, after Hirono had been a Congresswoman for a week, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published a curious story. Titled "Hirono learning the ropes," reporter Richard Borreca briefly outlined Hirono's previous Washington experience, her current committee assignments, then quoted Ted Carmine, who
teaches at the Indiana University Center on Congress.
"Usually, freshmen don't carry much weight," Carmine said in the story. "The committee asks questions by seniority… Sometimes they run out of time, and the freshmen never get to ask their questions." Borreca then quoted Carmine as saying freshmen congressional members should "Pay attention and keep quiet."
"It's not true!" Hirono told me at Maui High. "They give us lots of time to ask questions during hearings."
In fact, the story provoked Hirono so much she mentioned it on the floor of the House of Representatives.
"[F]rankly, I just want to share with my colleagues from the majority-making class, of which I am very proud, there was an article written in a local newspaper back home about me and how I am doing here, and they quoted a professor from the University of Pennsylvania [sic], a political science professor," she said on Jan. 19, according to the Congressional Record. "And he said, basically, freshmen are hardly ever seen and they are never heard from. Well, nothing could be further from the truth in our class. Not only were we seen, but we were heard from. We were encouraged to speak out. And I think every single one of us had an opportunity to speak on all of these bills, as I certainly did."
The Congressional Record—the daily account of every vote and speech made in Congress—seems to support her argument. Since the Star-Bulletin story came out, Hirono has spoken on the House floor five times. Her first speech, on Jan. 12, dealt with House Resolution 4, which allows Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower costs.
"Thousands of American families spent countless hours studying the Medicare Part D process," she said. "My family was one of those. I sat with my 82-year-old mother as we worked our way through the confusing plans… By giving Medicare negotiating authority, we will take an important step in the right direction."
Jan. 17 was a busy day. Hirono was back on the House floor expressing her support for the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act, which Hawai`i's Senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye had just re-introduced. Later, Hirono spoke favorably of House Resolution 5, which cut the interest rate for college loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent.
That same day, Hirono put her name to a letter signed by each of the freshman Democrats. Addressed to Representative Charlie Rangle (D, New York), the new chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the letter advocated an end to the free trade agreements the White House and Republican Party had pushed for the last six years.
"Vital to our electoral successes was our ability to take a vocal stand against the Administration's misguided trade agenda, and offer voters real, meaningful alternatives to the job-killing agreements, such as CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement], that the majority of our opponents supported," stated the letter. "As freshmen, we hope to be able to work with you and other Members of the Ways and Means Committee in crafting a new model for U.S. trade agreements that will not only reduce barriers to U.S. exports, but promote fairness and restore opportunity and sustainability for American workers, farmers, and small businesses."
Of course, not everything the House does involves such weighty matters of state. On Jan. 23, Hirono spoke in favor of House Resolution 323, the Seasoned Customer CTR Exemption Act—a bill designed to remove what Hirono called "burdensome paperwork for individual and institutional" banking transactions.
Near the end of our talk, Hirono asked me if I've read David Rose's article "Neo Culpa," which ran in the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair. "It's a great story," she said. "He interviews the neocons who pushed for Iraq. They say if they knew of the Bush Administration's incompetence back then, they would have had second thoughts."
The article is both fascinating and depressing. Neoconservatives like former Bush speechwriter David Frum, former CIA director R. James Woolsey and former Defense Policy Board member Kenneth Adelman all now say that Iraq is lost, Saddam Hussein was not the threat they once thought and the Bush Administration has done just about everything wrong it possibly could. At one point former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle—the intellectual grandfather of the invasion and occupation of Iraq—tells how the occupation authority routinely risked American soldiers' lives by sending them on convoys hauling ice 300 miles through the extremely hostile terrain between Kuwait and Baghdad.
Missing from the story is any discussion of the role Congress played in the war, for the simple reason that Congress, though tasked by the U.S. Constitution with the sole authority to declare war, played virtually no part in the run-up to the war. They exercised no oversight, held no hearings of substance and pretty much just went along with whatever nonsense Bush and the rest of the White House put out.
And now things are getting worse. Not only has President Bush given every indication that he will continue to prosecute the war in Iraq as long as he's president, but his ordering the imprisonment of Iranian agents in northern Iraq, sending a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf and authorizing U.S. soldiers to kill Iranians found in Iraq all seem calculated solely to provoke a war with Iran.
For now though, it seems radical solutions to such actions will only come from people like Bob Watada, who have the freedom to speak as private individuals.
"It's very difficult to withhold funding [for the war],"Hirono said. "[But] we'll question him [President Bush], hold hearings. What happened to $3 billion that seems to be missing? The role of Congress is going to be to hold the president accountable—to establish benchmarks. We're going to play the role Congress should have been playing for the last six years." MTW
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