APA Members on Capitol Hill: Growth, Organization, and Representation

Press Conference on the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_17_CAPAC_MinkPressConf_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Flanked by (from left to right) California Representative Don Edwards, California Representative Norman Y. Mineta, Guam Delegate Robert A. Underwood, California Representative Nancy Pelosi, and Hawaii Representative Neil Abercrombie, Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii speaks at a press conference on the formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) in 1994. The CAPAC provides opportunities for Asian Pacific American Members and Members with large APA constituencies to network and build influence in Congress.
In the relatively brief modern era that began in 1993, 28 Asian Pacific Americans have served in Congress. All but one of them have served in the House, and three total have served in the U.S. Senate. Together, they constitute nearly 47 percent of all the Asian Pacific Americans ever to serve in Congress. More APAs serve in the 115th Congress (2017–2019)—18 at the time of this writing—than have ever served before simultaneously.70

The reach of the Hart–Celler Immigration Act of 1965 is evident in the story of APAs in the modern Congresses. Whereas Japanese Americans stood out as the largest Asian immigrant community in the previous era and, accordingly, sent more Members to Congress than any other APA ethnic group, the diversity of the modern cohort is perhaps its most striking feature. Fueled by immigration policies that opened the door to new Asian groups, this group includes Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese American to serve in Congress, and Jay C. Kim, the first Korean American elected to Capitol Hill. In 1993 Robert C. (Bobby) Scott of Virginia, an African American with Filipino ancestry, won election to the House as the first individual of Filipino heritage to serve in Congress since the last of the archipelago’s Resident Commissioners left with the grant of independence in 1946. In 2004 Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal became just the second Asian-Indian American elected to Congress, more than 40 years after Dalip Singh (Judge) Saund of California left the House.

Before 1993 only two APA women, both representing Hawaii and both of Japanese ancestry, had ever served in Congress: Patsy Mink and Patricia Saiki. But beginning in 2005, with the election of California’s Doris Matsui, who succeeded her late husband Robert T. Matsui in a special election, an additional 10 APA women have been elected to Congress through the 2016 elections. This reflects the general upward trend of women entering political office in recent decades. It also underscores the tendency of minority women to account for a larger percentage of their overall ethnic group in Congress compared to white women.71Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii registered a notable accomplishment in this era when, after three terms as a U.S. Representative, she became the first APA woman ever to serve in the U.S. Senate, succeeding Senator Daniel K. Akaka in 2012.

A majority of these Members came from states that had large APA constituencies and a history of electing Asian Americans to Congress, seven from California and five from Hawaii. But for the first time APA Representatives were elected from more diverse geographic locales, with Virginia’s Bobby Scott becoming the first APA Member of Congress to serve from a U.S. state outside of Hawaii or California. Others won election from districts in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Louisiana, and Washington State. Additionally, three new APA Territorial Delegates were elected to Congress in this period.

As with the generation of APAs that served between World War II and the end of the Cold War, this cohort served on a wide range of congressional committees reflecting the complete spectrum of legislative interests.72 In 2007 Mike Honda became just the second Asian American to serve on the House Appropriations Committee. Steve Austria of Ohio followed him in 2011. California’s Doris Matsui became the first to serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee; her husband, Robert T. Matsui, had sat for one term when it was named the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, both Iraq War veterans, served on the Armed Services Committee.

While long-serving Hawaiian Senators Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye chaired two Senate committees apiece in this era and a number of subcommittees, only Norman Y. Mineta of California, who led the Public Works and Transportation Committee in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), chaired a House committee. Several others, however, were tapped as chairmen of subcommittees. In the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Representative Kim led Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Economic Development. In the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011), three APAs chaired House subcommittees: Virginia’s Bobby Scott (Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee); American Samoa’s Eni F. H. Faleomavaega (Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee); and Oregon’s David Wu (Technology and Innovation Subcommittee of the Science Committee). In the 114th Congress (2015–2017), Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa became just the second APA woman (after Patsy Mink) to wield a gavel when she led the Small Business Committee’s Health and Technology Subcommittee.

Whereas in prior periods the legislative interests of APAs in Congress reflected the unique trajectories of the immigrant or Pacific Islander groups to which they belonged, organization and coordination have marked APA efforts in the last two decades. With the creation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) in 1994 and efforts to collaborate with other minorities in Congress in the early 2000s, an agenda emerged that sought to leverage the power of a growing voting bloc in Congress to address shared areas of interest, from immigration to civil rights.

Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus

Eni F. H. Faleomavaega Speaking at a Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Meeting/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_18_CAPAC_Faleomavaega_HousePhotography.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Eni F. H. Faleomavaega, Delegate from American Samoa, addresses a meeting of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in 2013. Faleomavaega served in Congress from 1998 to 2015.

In recent years, APA Members of Congress have taken steps to increase their effectiveness as a group. With American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands gaining Territorial Delegates in 1981 and 2009, respectively, the number of Pacific Islanders serving in Congress has increased. With that increase, APA Members began to pool resources and information.

In the mid-1990s, APA Members followed congressional precedent by establishing an informal caucus that provided forums for networking and building influence in Congress. In a manner reminiscent of the creation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) in the 1970s, the establishment of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) in 1994 flowed from frustrations that APA concerns were poorly understood and often ignored in Washington, DC.73

On May 16, 1994, nearly a dozen charter members joined forces to form CAPAC, drawing its membership from both the House and Senate to raise awareness for APA issues and find legislative strength in numbers.74 As cofounder Patsy Mink of Hawaii explained at the time, “We have felt that we have not been consulted on important steps taken by this administration and the ones in the past.” Mink and others pointed specifically to health care, welfare, and immigration issues. Representative Mineta, whom colleagues elected as the first chairman of the group, recalled that APA Members had worked together on an informal basis for years, but “found that we didn’t have the leverage or the clout to get the attention to us on certain issues.” When the Clinton administration began to court other minority groups in Congress about proposed health care reforms, but failed to consult with APA Members, Mineta demanded and won a White House meeting with the President for Asian-American legislators.75

Patsy Takemoto Mink and President William J. (Bill) Clinton/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay3_19_MinkClinton_ClintonLibrary.xml Image courtesy of the William J. Clinton Library/National Archives and Records Administration Hawaii Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink advocates for the needs of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus with President William J. (Bill) Clinton in 1998.
From the outset, Mineta and others believed that one of the group’s organizing principles was to publicize issues affecting APAs within Congress. “We think that this caucus can be used as an education forum,” he noted shortly after CAPAC’s creation. “We have to educate our colleagues that we’re the fastest growing population. We’re still evidently a mystery to a lot of our own fellow members in Congress.”76 One of the group’s first efforts was to counter anti-immigrant measures that cropped up in debate about an $8.6 billion supplemental bill to address the devastation in Northridge, California, following the 1994 earthquake there. Mineta recalled, “There were amendments being offered that would say for instance that ‘none of the programs could be paid to undocumented residents.’ My point was: ‘How could you exclude emergency food, emergency housing to people just because they happened to be in the eyes of these people illegal aliens[?]’”77

CAPAC was distinct from another Asian-focused caucus created in 1994, the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans (CCIIA), which began as a foreign policy–centered group with Members interested in United States–India relations. Organized by New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone and seven other legislators, CCIIA boomed to more than 100 members within five years. It later expanded its activities toward Asian-Indian immigrant issues within the United States.78

CAPAC’s rules permitted non-APAs who represented large Asian-American constituencies to serve as full-fledged members with the right to vote on policy and even serve in leadership positions.79 In fact, three of the caucus’s charter members were not of Asian-American descent: Nancy Pelosi and Don Edwards of California and Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. “It’s all about building bridges to a larger group, most of whom are not [of] Asian descent,” CAPAC chairman David Wu of Oregon observed in 2002.80

Since its founding, CAPAC has had six chairs: Mineta, Mink, Underwood, Wu, Honda, and the current chair, Judy Chu of California. Chu was elected to the post in February 2011.81

The educational aspect of CAPAC’s work remains a strong interest among its members and extends beyond the confines of Capitol Hill. As recently as the 114th Congress, the group has supported the creation of a national Asian-American museum within the Smithsonian Institution. Caucus member Grace Meng of New York has introduced bills to establish the National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture, the most recent version being H.R. 868 in the 115th Congress.82

In April 2002, CAPAC, CBC, and CHC formally agreed to work in concert as the so-called Tri-Caucus “with the purpose of addressing issues of mutual concern: civil rights, education, immigration, job training, housing, and economic development.”83 This marked an effort to create a potent congressional voting bloc and signaled the growing influence of minority representatives particularly within the House Democratic Caucus. It reflected shifting nationwide demographics, as urban communities that for decades had been majority African American now included large and growing numbers of Hispanic and APA populations and that the APA population was increasing faster than any other group in the country. The Tri-Caucus agreement also reflected the fact that leaders of the various caucuses chose to coordinate their efforts in key areas so as not to compete for limited federal resources.84

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70As of July 1, 2017, the closing date of this publication.

71See Appendix B: Asian and Pacific Islander American Representatives, Senators, Delegates, and Resident Commissioners by State and Territory, 1900–2017.

72See Appendix C: Asian and Pacific Islander American Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House and Senate, 1900–2017.

73For the story of the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus, see Office of the Historian, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2008): 373–376, also available online at http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Historical-Essays/Permanent-Interest/Congressional-Black-Caucus/. For information on the origins and development of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Conference, see Office of the Historian, Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2013): 482–486, also available online at http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Essays/Strength-Numbers/Caucus-Conference/.

74Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, “Purpose, Mission, & Goals,” http://capac-chu.house.gov/about-me/purpose-mission-goals (accessed 12 June 2015); David S. Broder and Kenneth J. Cooper, “Politics: Asian Pacific Caucus,” 22 May 1994, Washington Post: A10. For more on issues caucuses in Congress, their role in the legislative process, and why they are formed, see Susan Webb Hammond, Congressional Caucuses in National Policy Making (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998): 36–53.

75Sam Chu Lin, “New Asian Pacific American Congressional Caucus Forms In the Capital,” 27 May 1994, AsianWeek (San Francisco, CA): 1.

76Lin, “New Asian Pacific American Congressional Caucus Forms In the Capital.”


78Sanjeev Khagram, Manish Desai, and Jason Varughese, “Seen, Rich, but Unheard? The Politics of Asian Indians in the United States,” in Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects, ed. Gordon H. Chang (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001): 258–284. See also Congressional Record, Extensions of Remarks, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (26 January 1993): 1305–1306.

79Diwata Fonte, “Caucus Courts Diversity; Asian Group Finds Strength in Numbers,” 4 November 2002, Roll Call: n.p.

80Fonte, “Caucus Courts Diversity”; Broder and Cooper, “Politics: Asian Pacific Caucus.”

81See Appendix H: Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chairmen and Chairwomen, 1994–2017.

82“National Asian Pacific American Museum Gets Congressional Push,” 12 April 2016, NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/national-asian-pacific-american-museum-gets-congressional-push-n554316 (accessed 10 May 2016); H.R. 4307, 114th Cong. (2015); H.R. 868, 115th Cong. (2017).

83“Minorities in Congress Join Forces,” 30 May 2002, Sun Reporter (San Francisco, CA): 2; Congressional Record, House, 108th Cong., 1st sess. (19 May 2003): 12138; Karen Branch- Brioso, “Minority Caucuses Join Forces to Increase Influence in House,” 24 April 2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A9.

84“Minorities in Congress Join Forces”; Peter Brand, “Minority Caucuses Form Alliance,” 1 June 2002, Atlanta Inquirer: 3.