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Senate Seniority is the Great Equalizer

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By UHPA Executive Director J. N. Musto

What was Senator Inouye’s most powerful tool in the United States Senate?  Certainly, his influence stemmed from his personal ability to bring individual Senators together to reach compromises.  However, the Senator’s ability to influence his fellow Senators became more powerful as his years of seniority in the Senate accumulated.  The Senator himself always recognized this unique aspect of the Senate, and he used it to make people listen and respond to what otherwise would be the small voice from an island State.

Among the States of our Union, seniority in the United States Senate is the political “great equalizer” between large and small States.   Our form of democracy is constructed around two very different legislative bodies; the House and the Senate. Every State, regardless of population size, is entitled to elect two Senators, while the U.S. House of Representatives is based on population size; the higher the population, the more elected Representatives from the State.  The influence in the Senate is more about the clout of an individual senator, and that clout increases with more Senate seniority.
 
Seniority in the U.S. Senate has some clear features that are important to understand.  First of all, seniority in the Senate comes from the Rules of Senate and can only be earned in the Senate.   It is “non-transferable,” meaning that a member cannot take years served in the US House and apply them to the Senate.  Also, Senators develop seniority through continued service on a particular committee.  That in turn can lead to a chairmanship if a member is from the political Party in power.

Hawai`i benefited from the extraordinary amount of seniority Senators Akaka and Inouye held, and then lost that advantage when Senator Akaka retired and Senator Inouye died.  Hawai`i began to rebuild seniority in the Senate with the election of Senator Brian Schatz, followed by the election of Senator Mazie Hirono.  Presently, Brian Schatz is Hawai`i’s most senior Senator; he was sworn into office in December 2012.  He has a significant seniority “head start” on all the other members of the Senate elected in 2012 that were sworn in after him.  This head start works in our favor and shouldn’t be lost.

Measuring this advantage, Senator Schatz now ranks ahead of 15 other U.S. Senators.  This head start, and his own energy, led to his being only one of two new Senators to be appointed with a chairmanship of a subcommittee.  If we re-elect Senator Schatz in 2014, he will move up at least seven more steps on the seniority ranking in the Senate, and possibly higher.

Senator Schatz serves on three committees that are strategically important for Hawai`i (Energy and Natural Resources, Commerce, and Indian Affairs) and building seniority in these committees is important for us as well.  His advancement pays off for Hawai`i by ramping up issues that are critical to us like clean energy, which Schatz has fought for since he was a State legislator.  And that he has stepped up on Native Hawaiian matters is essential for the betterment of the whole State.  It is about moving the power of ideas that might otherwise not see the light of day, such as clean energy and building an Asian-Pacific education and research center in America’s island state, where his Senate seniority will make a difference for our State.

By the rules of the Senate, if Representative Hanabusa won the Senate seat in 2014, she would lose these advantages and would begin at the bottom of the seniority ladder in the Senate, despite her years of service in the U.S. House of Representatives.  There may be some public misunderstanding here.  However, there shouldn’t be.  Again, years of service in the House do not transfer to the Senate.  So the big loser in the seniority ladder would be the small State of Hawai`i, which would go back to the bottom.  Furthermore, any committee assignments she would be appointed to would be unknown, and there is no practical likelihood that a new Senator would receive a subcommittee chair, as Senator Schatz did.

The University of Hawai`i Professional Assembly (UHPA) has endorsed the election of Brian Schatz in 2014 because he is a young leader with a record for excellent judgment, who, in a short time, has built relationships and taken the right positions in the United States Senate.  The way elections work out in our State, Senator Schatz has to run for re-election to the Senate in 2014, and, if he wins, again in 2016.  We expect a spirited and informative election in 2014, and building Senate seniority for our small State should be a central issue in the debate ahead and a critical factor for the public in voting for a candidate.

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