APA Members on Capitol Hill: Legislative Interests and Achievements

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Hawaiian Politicians/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_37_MatsunagaMinkLBJBurnsInouye_LBJLibrary.xml Photograph by Yoichi Okamoto; image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration Hawaiian politicians meet with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. From left, Representative Spark M. Matsunaga, Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink, President Johnson, former Delegate and then Governor John Burns, and Senator Daniel K. Inouye.
When considering the legislative agendas and the accomplishments of the Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress during this era, it is important to remember that only 14 APA individuals first won election to the House or Senate in the period from Pearl Harbor to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. The most who served in any one Congress in the course of this long span was eight, first in the 97th Congress (1981–1983) and again in the 100th and 101st Congresses (1987–1991). This group proved to be small enough that APA Members did not even form an issues caucus until two decades after women and African Americans had done so in the 1970s.

In many respects, the composition of this group of legislators reflected longstanding immigration patterns. Until the 1970s, Japanese Americans remained the largest APA immigrant community in the United States and half of the 14 APAs who entered Congress were ethnic Japanese. Among them, Hawaii’s Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first woman of color to serve in Congress in early 1965. In the first 60 years of Asian Pacific Americans in Congress, all served in the House. When Hawaii entered the Union as a state in 1959, Hiram Fong became not only the first Asian-American Senator, but also the first Chinese American to serve in Congress.

Geographically, these Members hailed from only a handful of areas: six from Hawaii, four from California, and two each from Guam and American Samoa. Still, this represented a change in the power of these individual Members. With the election of Dalip Saund of California in 1956, the era of APAs serving exclusively as statutory representatives, as either Delegates or Resident Commissioners, drew to a close. Of the first 18 APAs who served in Congress through 1945, all were statutory representatives with circumscribed powers. From 1941 to 1991, 10 of the 14 APAs elected to Congress held full voting and membership privileges as Representatives or Senators with no restrictions on their ability to participate in committee, hold leadership posts, or vote on final legislation. The handful who served as Territorial Delegates still were unable to vote on final legislation, though, over time, they enjoyed more privileges in terms of their participation on committees.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Patsy Takemoto Mink/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_38_MinkLBJ_LBJLibrary.xml Photograph by Robert Knudsen; image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/National Archives and Records Administration President Lyndon B. Johnson and Hawaii Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink wave before setting off on a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles after attending the Honolulu Conference on the Vietnam War in 1966.
It was during this era that, for the first time, APAs served on a broad range of congressional committees that reflected a full spectrum of legislative interests. In 1981 Daniel K. Akaka became the first Asian American to serve on the House Appropriations Committee. California’s Robert T. Matsui became the first to serve on several key panels: Interstate and Foreign Commerce (forerunner to Energy and Commerce) in 1979; Judiciary in 1979; and Ways and Means in 1981. Spark Matsunaga broke ground on the House Rules Committee in the 90th Congress (1967–1969). Guamanian Delegate Won Pat became the first to serve on the Armed Services Committee beginning in 1975. In the Senate, Fong became the first to serve on the Judiciary Committee (1961) and the Appropriations Committee (1969), while Inouye joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1963.

Norman Y. Mineta/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_39_NMineta_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Norman Y. Mineta of California was the first, and to date the only, Asian Pacific American to chair a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He oversaw the Committee on Public Works and Transportation in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995).
In more than a century of service in Congress, only a small handful of APAs have ever led committees. It is perhaps unsurprising that Inouye, who served longer than any other APA (a combined 53 years in the House and Senate), led the way in this regard. During his long Senate tenure, Inouye chaired three standing committees (Indian Affairs; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and Appropriations) as well as two very prominent select committees (the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, better known as the Iran-Contra Committee). Akaka led two standing Senate committees (Veterans’ Affairs and Indian Affairs). Mineta remains the only APA to ever chair a House committee. He wielded the Public Works and Transportation gavel in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995).

As with committee leadership positions, only a few individuals have moved into party leadership posts. Representative Mink became the first APA to hold a nominal leadership spot when she served for a term as secretary of the House Democratic Caucus in the 94th Congress (1975–1977)—a post traditionally reserved for women Members. In the following Congress, Senator Inouye won election as secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference and remained in that post through the 100th Congress (1987–1989) until his failed run for Majority Leader. He later served as president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line in presidential succession and the member of the majority party with the longest continuous service. In addition to Inouye, Matsunaga also held a position within the Senate Democratic leadership, serving as the appointed Chief Deputy Whip from the 95th through the 100th Congresses (1977–1989).

Spark M. Matsunaga Campaign Postcard/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_40_SMatsunaga_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Spark M. Matsunaga of Hawaii held a leadership role in the Senate, serving as the Democrats’ Chief Deputy Whip from the 95th through 100th Congresses (1977–1989).
Remarkably, two of the most powerful APA congressmen—Inouye and Mineta—formed lifelong friendships with other future powerful legislators during the most trying times of their lives, long before any of them served on the Hill. Senator Robert Dole of Kansas had been shot in northern Italy only days before Inouye suffered his own nearly fatal wound. By sheer happenstance, Dole and Inouye both recovered at the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Michigan, where future Senator Philip Hart of Michigan also recuperated from his wartime injuries. While interned at the Heart Mountain camp, a short drive outside of Cody, Wyoming, Mineta, for his part, formed a lasting friendship with future Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Mineta and Simpson first met when their respective Boy Scout troops gathered at the camp for a jamboree, even sharing a tent together. Years later, Inouye, Dole, Mineta, and Simpson would lean on those old friendships during important debates on issues like redress and immigration.117

The legislative interests of the APAs of this era largely reflected the unique trajectories of the immigrant or Pacific Islander groups to which they belonged. For the Guamanian and Samoan Delegates, efforts to secure a measure of self-determination and federal appropriations were balanced with a respect for maintaining indigenous culture. Hawaiians aimed to achieve the long-sought goal of statehood. In fighting for redress for World War II internment, Members of Congress who were nikkei (those who belonged to the Japanese diaspora, emigrants, or their descendants who reside outside Japan) also raised public awareness of the history of Asian Americans in the 20th century.


Neither of the Guamanian Delegates in this period, Won Pat nor Blaz, chaired a congressional committee or had a vote on final legislation on the House Floor, but both men worked to give Guam control over its future. Their efforts, however, were frequently thwarted by both mainland opposition and political infighting back home. “Evolution necessary to change a sleepy tropical island into a thriving American community of more than 100,000 persons has been slow and gradual but consistent and steady,” Won Pat once told his colleagues.118

In 1976 Won Pat and Delegate Ron de Lugo of the U.S. Virgin Islands steered H.R. 9491 to passage, a measure that established constitutional conventions in Guam and the Virgin Islands despite opposition from the Department of the Interior. The proposed constitution for Guam won approval from both President Carter and Congress in 1978 only to stall after the territory’s government changed hands. Guam’s new Republican administration delayed the ratification vote, during which time support for the constitution crumbled amid claims it continued the status quo under the Organic Act. During a public referendum on August 4, 1979, ratification failed spectacularly.119

Won Pat was never able to revive the constitution or any serious discussions on status before his departure from Congress in 1985. His successor, Republican Ben Blaz, introduced the Guam Commonwealth Act in 1988, this time with the full backing of Guam’s voters and a local bipartisan Commission on Self- Determination. The bill, however, never made it out of committee.120

Commission on Guam War Claims

Piti Navy Yard/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_41_PitiNavyYard_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In retaking the island of Guam from the Japanese, U.S. forces destroyed the Piti Navy Yard, shown here in 1944.
Even though more than 30 years had passed since the end of World War II, both Won Pat and Blaz confronted issues held over from the conflict. In 1945 Congress passed the Guam Meritorious Claims Act that authorized the Navy Secretary to settle cases of damaged property after the Japanese and American occupations left much of the island in ruins. The Navy dragged its feet, however, and a decade into the claims process the Defense Department ruled that Guamanians had not been U.S. citizens during the war and were therefore ineligible for compensation. The Micronesian Claims Act of 1971 did little to solve the problem and only provoked more criticism. The issue was effectively dropped during the 101st Congress (1989–1991).121

The military presence on Guam continued to be a contentious issue well into the 1990s. In an effort to limit military holdings on the islands, Blaz introduced the Guam Excess Lands Act in 1992 which would have transferred 3,000 acres from the Defense Department to Guam in an effort to settle the land claims, but the bill was not acted on.122

Cultural Protection and Attention in Washington

In Congress, Pacific Delegates often found themselves having to explain and protect the unique customs of their islands. “Guam is still an unknown quantity,” an aide to Won Pat noted in 1978, “so we are engaged in a constant job of education.”123 In some cases, the Delegates had to clarify even basic points. In early 2002, for example, a House colleague mistakenly introduced Delegate Faleomavaega as “the gentleman from Somalia.”124

For Delegates from the Pacific territories, even the simplest legislative acts could be challenging. All 13 of American Samoa Delegate Fofó Sunia’s bills, for instance, never made it past the subcommittee level. “Even if I had only one bill passed that would be a great record,” Won Pat reminded his constituents while running for a third term. Personal connections, he said, could help grease the wheels—“You need friends in Congress.”125

But there were also even larger partisan issues to work around. When Faleomavaega was just a House staffer working for the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Representative Burton taught him an important lesson: Do not make territorial issues “controversial,” he said, and ensure they have bipartisan support. “Because the territories are so small, don’t get into the arena of the big issues because you will be eaten alive.”126

Geography also played a role. Unlike the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, whose constituencies lived much closer to the mainland, the Pacific territories were relatively isolated. “Our only disadvantage out here,” Won Pat bemoaned to the Pacific Daily News, “is that we are just too damn far from the United States.”127 For the Delegates, simply staying in contact with their constituents was difficult. At first, the House would only pay for Won Pat to go home four times a year, but he eventually had his travel and telephone budgets expanded in the 95th Congress (1977–1979). A similar allowance was also approved for the Samoan Delegate. Flights from Hawaii to American Samoa were often limited, however, so when Faleomavaega served as a Delegate a decade later, he tried to go home once a month for at least a week.128

Hawaiian Statehood

Robert W. Wilcox/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_42_RWilcox_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Robert W. Wilcox was the first Asian Pacific American to represent Hawaii as a Delegate to Congress, from 1900 to 1903.
Along with the decision to grant Guam and American Samoa Delegates in the House, one of the most consequential developments in the history of APAs in Congress during the second half of the 20th century was the successful campaign by Hawaii for statehood. First as a territory and then as a state, Hawaii has sent more APAs to the House and Senate than anywhere else—15 individuals since Delegate Robert W. Wilcox, the first APA to serve on Capitol Hill. Of the six APA Senators in history, five hailed from Hawaii.129

Ever since the government annexed the Hawaiian Islands during the late 19th century, statehood seemed to loom just out of reach. By fits and starts, however, statehood supporters gradually won concessions and, by the late 1950s, the campaign for Hawaiian statehood faced a familiar hurdle: the confluence of race and politics.130

Elizabeth Farrington Handbill/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_43_EFarringtonHandbill_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
A campaign handbill urges voters to support Elizabeth Farrington in 1955. Farrington succeeded her late husband, Joseph Rider Farrington, as a Delegate from Hawaii in the 83rd and 84th Congresses.
At the time, both Hawaii and Alaska were working toward statehood. Traditionally, Alaska’s voters elected Democrats while Hawaiians generally elected Republicans. The assumption in Washington was that these electoral patterns would persist. In the Senate, party divisions were so close that the majority usually held only a one- or two-seat advantage. Admitting either Hawaii or Alaska to the Union separately threatened to tip the scale in either direction. Because of the razor-thin margins, a coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats effectively ruled the Senate, capable of blocking either civil rights legislation or statehood for multiracial Hawaii with equal effectiveness.131

By midcentury, the statehood movement in Hawaii seemed well on its way to achieving its goal. It had a majority coalition of white settlers, commonly called haoles, and pro-statehood Japanese Hawaiians that outnumbered the antistatehood block of Native Hawaiians.132 Congress’s earlier fears that statehood would sweep an untold number of communist agents into the national fabric had been neutralized by previous immigration laws.133 Finally, Hawaii’s longtime Delegate in the House, Republican Joseph Farrington, had worked tirelessly to coordinate the statehood campaign in Washington.

When Farrington died in 1954, however, things started to unravel. Although his widow, Republican Elizabeth Farrington, took his seat and resumed the statehood campaign, she struggled against a political realignment back home that was swelling the ranks of the Democratic Party. Complicating the issue, some Democrats in Washington insisted on coupling Alaskan and Hawaiian statehood to maintain party parity in the Senate, but the House Rules Committee Chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative southern Democrat, refused to consider the joint proposal.134

“What Did Alaska Have That I Don’t Mister?” Cartoon/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_44_WhatDidAlaskaHaveCartoon_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration This 1959 cartoon by Jim Berryman—“What Did Alaska Have That I Don’t Mister?”—highlights the long-intertwined push for statehood by Alaska and Hawaii. Alaska became a state first in January 1959, and Hawaii followed suit in August 1959.
During the 85th and 86th Congresses (1957–1961), the fate of Hawaiian statehood largely lay in the hands of two Texans, House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who both thought they saw a parliamentary opening. If they could convince the authorizing committees to make Hawaiian and Alaskan statehood privileged measures, then congressional leaders could still bring the bills to the floor for a vote despite opposition in the House Rules Committee or by southern Democratic opponents.135

In April 1956, in a key turning point, Alaskan voters approved a referendum to adopt a proposed state constitution. When Alaskan officials later presented their charter to Congress, the House and Senate were freed from having to pass an enabling act and could immediately start debating the terms of statehood. With Alaska in the pipeline, Johnson informed Hawaii’s new Delegate, Democrat John Burns, that his territory would have to wait until the next year for its chance for statehood. Afraid that if Hawaii became a state and elected two GOP Senators he would lose his majority, Johnson instructed Burns to stall attempts to bring up Hawaiian statehood in 1958.136

Hawaii Statehood Bill Signing/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_45_HI50thBillSigning_EisenhowerLibrary.xml Photograph by the National Park Service; image courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum/National Archives and Records Administration On March 18, 1959, Henry McPhee, associate special counsel to the President, looks on as President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the bill making Hawaii the 50th state.
The plan by Rayburn and Johnson to bring Alaska’s statehood bill to the floor as a privileged measure worked as expected. After overruling objections and defeating a motion to send it back to committee, the House passed it in late May and the Senate cleared it in late June. President Eisenhower signed it into law on July 7, 1958. Keeping his end of the bargain, Delegate Burns discouraged the chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, Leo O’Brien, from bringing up Hawaii’s accompanying statehood bill.137

Throughout July, congressional Democrats contained the political damage to Burns for putting off the Hawaii bill while House Majority Leader John McCormack of Massachusetts stated publicly that Hawaiian statehood would be debated in the next Congress. When the new territorial governor, William Quinn, and a delegation of Hawaiians lobbied Congress to consider an enabling bill before adjournment, Johnson promptly shut them down. Later offering his reassurance, Johnson said, “Due to the wise counsel of Delegate Burns and others who have put their country ahead of politics, Hawaii has the best chance for admission at the next session as it has ever had.”138

Daniel K. Inouye Election Certificate/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_46_InouyeElectionCertificate_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
About this record
This election certificate formalized Daniel K. Inouye’s election to Congress in 1959 as Hawaii’s first U.S. Representative. Inouye also was the first Japanese American elected to the House.
When the Hawaiian statehood bill failed to come up in 1958, voices from across the country, from President Eisenhower to the editorial board of the New York Times and especially Republicans in Hawaii, lashed out at Congress. Despite the delay on Capitol Hill, Delegate Burns won re-election that year, adding to substantial Democratic gains nationwide. The bill to begin the statehood process for Hawaii was introduced in both houses of Congress in January 1959. Less than 90 days later Eisenhower signed it into law.139

The inhabitants of Hawaii voted for the statehood plebiscite by a 17 to 1 margin on June 27, 1959. Two months later, on August 21, President Eisenhower proclaimed Hawaii the 50th state of the Union.140 With statehood, the U.S. Senate received its first APA Member, Hiram Fong, and the House its first Japanese American, Daniel Inouye.

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117See Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: The Way to the White House (New York: Vintage Books, 1993): 95–111, 131–136; Ed O’Keefe, “Bob Dole Pays Respects to Daniel Inouye in Capitol Rotunda,” 20 December 2012, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/2chambers/wp/2012/12/20/bob-dole-pays-respects-to-daniel-inouye-in-capitolrotunda (accessed 24 August 2016); David M. Shribman, “The Daniel Inouye Generation: Wounded in War, He Just Kept Serving His Country,” 19 December 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: B7; Robert D. McFadden, “Daniel Inouye, Hawaii’s Quiet Voice of Conscience in Senate, Is Dead at 88,” 18 December 2012, New York Times: A33; Frank Davies, “Mineta, Ex-Senator Forged Ties at Internment Camp,” 2 May 2008, San Jose Mercury News: n.p.

118Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (9 September 1975): 28034.

119Leibowitz, Defining Status: 336–338. Quotation from Rogers, Destiny’s Landfall: 242.

120Blaz introduced H.R. 4100, 100th Cong. (1988).

121Guam Meritorious Claims Act, Public Law 79-224, 59 Stat. 582 (1945); Bernard Punzalan, “Guam World War II War Claims: A Legislative History,” Guampedia, accessed 9 March 2016, http://www.guampedia.com/guam-world-war-ii-war-claims-legislative-history/. Under the Treaty of Peace with Japan, the United States excused reparations from Japan and transferred war claims in Guam to its courts. See Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 238.

122Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 2nd sess. (5 February 1992): 1692.

123Lynne Olson, “Territories Still Have Quiet Voices in Congress,” 14 May 1978, Baltimore Sun: A3.

124Hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Miscellaneous National Parks Bills, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (12 June 2002): 11.

125Leanne McLaughlin, “Record is Admirable: Won Pat,” 3 September 1976, Pacific Daily News (Guam): 24.

126Faleomavaega, oral history interview.

127George Blake, “Pat Won! Vows He’ll Run Again in ’78,” 6 September 1976, Pacific Daily News (Guam): 2.

128Faleomavaega, oral history interview.

129See Appendix B, Asian Pacific Islander Representatives, Senators, Delegates, and Resident Commissioners by State and Territory, 1900–2017.

130See the general discussions in Bell, Last Among Equals, and Whitehead, Completing the Union.

131Bell, Last Among Equals: 243, 253–254.

132Ibid., 257–258.

133Whitehead, Completing the Union: 307; Melendy, Hawaii: 277.

134Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Mary Elizabeth Pruett Farrington,” Women in Congress.

135Bell, Last Among Equals: 237, 273.

136Ibid., 238, 244, 246; Whitehead, Completing the Union: 311.

137Bell, Last Among Equals: 247–249.

138Whitehead, Completing the Union: 312; quotation in Bell, Last Among Equals: 250.

139Whitehead, Completing the Union: 314–316; Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 252.

140Daws, Shoal of Time: 391; Whitehead, Completing the Union: 319, 322–323.