Those Oily 49th-50th State Ties

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - March 23, 2005
| Del.icio.us

Hawaii environmentalists expressed shock last week when U.S. Sens. Dan Akaka and Dan Inouye voted with Senate Republicans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The Hawaii members’ actions galled particularly because the measure passed the Senate 51- 49.

In short, the Dans’votes did it.

And the Dans’votes could have undone it.

Why, pray tell, did two liberal, humane, supposedly environmentally sensitive Hawaii senators throw their support to gas-guzzling despoilers?

Inouye said his vote was all about Hawaii’s dependence on oil and the need to find new sources the black, icky gold. He also cited the support of 229 Alaskan tribes for the drilling.

Sen. Akaka concurred.

Balderdash and gobbledygook!

A half-century of history and practical politics provide other, more persuasive reasons for the Dans’ pro-drilling votes.

Forty-six years ago this month the Hawaii Statehood Bill passed both houses of the United States Congress. A deal worked out between Alaska delegate-to- Congress Bob Barlett, Hawaii delegate John A. Burns, House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson ensured the bill’s passage.

The deal separated the Alaska and Hawaii statehood measures. Hawaii allowed the Alaska measure to go first, and Alaska statehood bill passed Congress in 1958. Hawaii became the 50th state the following year.

I’ve spent some time looking at the congressional papers of Delegate Burns. He frequently expressed frustration at the ignorance displayed by fellow congressmen of Hawaii, Alaska and their problems. The two non-contiguous territories — one huge but frigid, the other paradisiacal but separated from the Mainland by an ocean — simply didn’t register on his colleagues’ consciousness.

Forty-six years later, they still don’t. Alaska and Hawaii count few residents: Alaska 627,000, Hawaii 1,212,000. Thus Alaska’s congressional delegation meets the bare minimum: one congressman and two senators. Hawaii does Alaska but one congressman better.

Over the years the members of Congress from these two non-contiguous, lightly populated, often forgotten states have banded together to counter the contiguous states’indifference. Alaska supports Hawaii; Hawaii supports Alaska — and suddenly, at least in the Senate, you’ve got a block of four — only four, but in terms of seniority much more.

Only two members of the U.S. Senate have served longer than Hawaii’s Dan Inouye. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens tops all Senate Republicans in seniority. Because of their seniority, the closeness of the Alaska-Hawaii relationship, and their friendship, Inouye and Stevens flex extraordinary Senate muscle. One itches, the other knows it and scratches.

Thus Hawaii’s two senators supported drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve. Does it mean they are anti-environment? No, but when it comes to what Ted Stevens wants for Alaska, you bet they are. What’s in it for them? For us? The continued friendship of Ted Stevens and the rock-hard solidarity of the Alaska-Hawaii voting bloc.

What did Akaka and Inouye lose in their support for the Bush administration’s oil-only energy policy? Very little. Someday, we — or our children — will look at old photos of Hummers and SUVs filling circa 2005 parking lots and freeways and shake their heads at their ancestors’profligacy. But in terms of their political health, Akaka and Inouye risked little by their vote. Given Hawaii’s undying loyalty to congressional incumbents, both will remain in office as long as desire or mortality will allow.

Hawaii’s environmentalists may fret and fume but compared to the significance of the Alaska-Hawaii tie, their unhappiness won’t count much.

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