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Honolulu Civil Beat - Hawaii Delegates Frustrated by Federal Shutdown Gridlock

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By Chad Blair

Try the office doors for Hawaii's two senators in Washington and you'll find them locked. A sign on Mazie Hirono's door apologizes and explains that the government is closed.

Call Brian Schatz's office and you'll likely get an answering machine. While the incoming calls are listened to, staff are prohibited during the shutdown from calling back.

The offices of Hawaii's two representatives have remained open, albeit mostly with skeleton crews.

Colleen Hanabusa brought all her D.C. and Washington staff back to work Tuesday once the House passed legislation Saturday so that workers can eventually receive back pay. (The Senate has yet to act on the measure.) And Tulsi Gabbard's staff is rotating in and out and doing the best they can to get work done, according to her chief of staff, Jessica Vanden Berg.

Still, the shutdown means that lots of constituents from Hawaii can't get help with their federally related issues. Most will have to wait until the impasse ends and staff can resume case work. It's not necessarily because their delegates can't help them; it's because the government agencies they need to contact are shuttered.

"It's frustrating," said Hanabusa, who actually took to calling the Department of Defense herself to find out the status of furloughed workers and contractors in Hawaii. "They were surprised to hear from me."

Hanabusa said that BAE Systems, Hawaii's largest defense contractor with 1,000 workers, has experienced "minimal cuts or delays" and that there have been no furloughs of BAE employees at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard or Schofield Barracks. She's waiting for response from other contractors in the state. (BAE System did eliminate 35 jobs at Schofield Barracks earlier this month, according to Neil Franz, a company spokesman, in an email to Civil Beat on Oct. 2.)

Update

Despite D.C.'s near paralysis, all four Hawaii delegates remain on the job, three of them voluntarily working without pay since Oct. 1. This week Hirono's office confirmed that she, too, is rejecting her paycheck during the shutdown and donating it to charity.

But other than supporting the Democratic leadership, speaking out on the House or Senate floor and spending time with the press, there are limits to what they can do for Hawaii during the partial shutdown, which enters Day 11 Thursday. And, as the Oct. 17 deadline nears for raising the debt ceiling or risk defaulting on the federal government's borrowing obligations, Hawaii's senators and representatives are growing more frustrated.

Hawaii's delegates are not alone in their exasperation. Members not in leadership -- that is, nearly everyone in Congress -- are also largely relegated to the sidelines. As President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell do much of the talking, most members can only echo support for their party's respective position.

On Thursday, there were reports that both sides were talking, at minimum to agree to a six-week extension of the debt ceiling -- in other words, to buy some more time for more negotiation. For now, however, little has been forthcoming in terms of the parameters of any deal or a concrete idea as to when the government will actually reopen.

Asked about whether addressing Obamacare -- defunding it, delaying it, changing it -- was still a House goal, Boehner (whose perpetual tan appears orange when seen up close) was evasive.

"If 'ands' and 'buts' were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas," he said at a brief press conference Thursday morning at the U.S. Capitol.

Hawaii's congressional leaders are doing their best to keep folks at home posted on the goings on.

Hirono has elected to send email to constituents about the shutdown only through her campaign rather than her office, so as not to possibly violate Senate protocol. Schatz is issuing updates through office and campaign email, but like Hirono he is limited to addressing the budget crisis only -- no talking about his ideas for education, for example.

The House and Senate rules during a shutdown are subject to interpretation by members. That's what allowed Hanabusa to reopen for business. She has sent out press releases nearly every day, many of them decrying the so-called "piecemeal" funding bills that the House GOP has passed to reopen popular parts of the government, like the National Institutes of Health. (Hanabusa has voted against every bill.)

Like their bosses, staff for Hawaii's delegation can do very little because of restrictions advised by House and Senate legal counsel.

"It's scary," said Nathan Click, Hirono's communications director. "We can't do anything."

"You sit home watching CSPAN and it drives you crazy," said Hanabusa's military legislative assistant, Sean Callahan, who is back on the job.

Update

Gabbard, meanwhile, has said little publicly this week about the shutdown or debt crisis, but that's because she is under the weather. Illness forced her to miss a vote Wednesday on a GOP plan to refund the Federal Aviation Administration -- one of those piecemeal bills that the Senate won't pass and the president won't sign because they want the entire government reopened, not just popular parts.

Gabbard did manage to join Hanabusa and the House Democratic Caucus as they met with the president at the White House Wednesday. She has also used Twitter and Facebook to share her views, as seen in this retweet illustrating her dedication to the military: "Veterans Affairs Cmte holds hearing with VA Sec Eric Shinseki on benefits for vets during #shutdown."

She also spoke out frequently in the days leading up to the shutdown and shortly after. As recently as Oct. 1, she said, "Attempting to fix the government shutdown by picking winners and losers, taking a piecemeal approach, is like trying to choose which child to feed. This approach means that the government shutdown will not end. Congress must pass a clean funding bill to finally put an end to it."1

Reached via email Thursday, the congresswoman had this to say about D.C.'s problems: "In Washington, partisan politics are hurting our country, our veterans, our keiki and our federal workers during this unnecessary government shutdown. I have heard from many people in Hawaii about the very real impacts it is having on their families. I am deeply concerned about the longstanding impacts of what is looking to be a prolonged shutdown. While valid issues have been raised and need to be addressed, we cannot keep holding our government hostage to have those debates."

Hawaii's senators are not holding back about their concerns for the islands, either. Late Wednesday Hirono took to the Senate floor to speak on the shutdown's impact on tourism.

"For the last seven days our National Parks, Wildlife Refuges and historical sites have been closed to the public. These federal sites are critical to many small businesses, particularly in rural communities," she said. "Over the past week I've heard from many people -- especially small business owners -- whose livelihoods are directly impacted by the closure of these sites."

One example: A Maui man who said his daughter and son-in-law have seen their bicycle tour business lose hundreds to thousands of dollars a day because Haleakala National Park is closed down.

"We're holding up, but you know who's not holding up? The rest of the country, frankly," Hirono told Civil Beat. "I have five staff people right now, and we're doing our best. My hope is that the House will do their jobs, that they'll take responsibility for this shutdown and reopen government."

Hirono told Civil Beat she was pleased to see that advocates of immigration rallied on the Mall this week. It's a top priority for her, but something that has fallen by the wayside because of the budget standoff.

But Hirono expressed confidence that the Capitol would eventually resume business in a bipartisan fashion, pointing out that it's a small minority in the House majority that is holding things up. Schatz said much the same, saying he seeks compromise; that's why he's tried to avoid the rhetorical "sharp edges" that have have cut from both sides.

"But, this is every bit as bad as it looks," said Schatz. "And this is all caused by a rump faction of House Republicans who are willing to not just do terrible damage to the economy, but do long-term damage to our system of government."

Schatz said the only appropriate response to the "rump faction" is "first to be outraged and then to beat them." In the Senate, that means Republicans need to isolate colleagues like Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah until they are rendered effectively impotent.

Hanabusa said she is optimistic, too, that the government can work together once the current crises have abated. She pointed out that the parties have been able to work together before, and she senses that a deal may be in the works to settle both the shutdown and debt ceiling dilemmas.

They key is to find a way to save face.

"I got to tell you, I sit with various groups that are bipartisan, and they also feel that way," said Hanabusa. "Some of them are a lot more honest. You know, in Hawaii we can say it, right? How to save face is something we understand very well. That's what they are kind of looking for, some 'save face' mechanism."

One possibility: repealing the medical-device tax in the Affordable Care Act, something that would not satisfy many tea partiers but would appeal to many Republicans and even some Democrats.

But Congress isn't there yet, and the shutdown goes on, making it nearly impossible to do the people's business.

"It's no small thing to waste time in the United States Senate given the challenges that our country has," said Schatz. "With immigration reform, with the climate crisis, with the need to reform our educational system, with the fiscal challenges that we have, it is no small thing to waste two months. And even in the best-case scenario, if we emerge from this is in the next several days, we will have chewed up time that could have been used in the world's greatest deliberative body to solve our problems."

Schatz continued: "Getting back to the regular order is the only way to solve our problems as a country. ... But we can't get anything done because we are stuck by this nonsense."


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