MATSUI, Robert T.

MATSUI, Robert T.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Robert T. Matsui served in the House from 1979 to 2005, but his earliest memories were of an internment camp where his family was separated and where they lived like prisoners, denied their most basic constitutional rights. That experience was formative for Matsui. “Adversity made [Matsui] stronger, and along the way he helped countless others to find strength as well,” noted an observer who reflected on Matsui’s long political career.1 A social liberal with a pro-market approach to trade, Matsui’s workhorse style of legislating earned the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle during his 26 years in the House.

Robert Takeo (Bob) Matsui was born on September 17, 1941, in Sacramento, California, to Yasuji and Alice Matsui, less than three months before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.2 Both his parents were born in Sacramento. Following the U.S. declaration of war against Japan, six-month-old Robert Matsui and his family were evacuated from their hometown to an internment camp in April 1942 as part of the relocation of Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast.3 Becoming family number 25261, the Matsui family initially was sent to the Tule Lake camp in Newell, California—a remote location in the extreme northeast corner of the state. Alice and Robert Matsui were moved to a camp in Caldwell, Idaho, while Yasuji was separated from his family and sent to a Weiser, Idaho, work camp. Alice Matsui gave birth to Robert’s sister, Barbara, at the Caldwell facility.4 Eventually, the Matsui family reunited and returned to Sacramento following their release three years later. Like most internees whose livelihoods were shattered, the Matsui’s lost their family produce business in Sacramento during internment. After the war, they had to rebuild their lives.

Robert attended William Land Elementary School, California Junior High, and later graduated from C. K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento, California, in 1959. In 1963 he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in political science. At Berkeley, he met Doris Okada, another wartime internee who was born at an internment camp in Poston, Arizona.5 In 1966 Matsui received his JD from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco and practiced as a lawyer in Sacramento. Robert and Doris married in 1968 and had one son, Brian.

As a young man studying at Berkeley in 1961, Matsui was motivated by the words of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to enter into public service. Matsui felt inspired to “look beyond ourselves, and look to our community, our state, and our nation to see how we can improve the lot of every American.”6 At the age of 29, Matsui, a lawyer in a private practice, was encouraged to run for the Sacramento city council in 1971.7 Reflecting on this first election, Matsui said, “For historical purposes, I think it’s good to say people were coming to me, asking me to run, but the reality is that that’s not the way these things happen. You have to want it.”8 This election marked the first time the city council was divided into districts. Matsui ran a grassroots campaign and won, earning the distinction as the first Japanese American to hold this position.9 He served until 1978, and his time on the council included a year as vice mayor of Sacramento in 1977.

Matsui also worked as the campaign manager for U.S. Representative John Moss’s 1972, 1974, and 1976 reelection contests.10 After 13 terms in the House, Moss announced his retirement at the end of the 95th Congress (1977–1979) and suggested that Matsui run for the open seat.11 He seemed a natural fit. Like Moss, he was a liberal with a pro-business approach.12 Matsui won a tight, fiveway Democratic primary for the urban district, which encompassed the California state capital. In the general election for the 96th Congress (1979–1981), Republican Sandy Smoley ran a competitive race against Matsui in the largely Democratic district. Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts and President Jimmy Carter both stumped for Matsui, who struggled with name recognition in the campaign.13 Ultimately, Matsui prevailed by a margin of 13,000 votes, winning 53 percent of the total.14 “I think there [are] only a few times in a person’s life that they have an opportunity to do something very important and this is my opportunity,” he told a reporter after the election. “It might be frustrating, at the same time I can do it.”15 He won each of the next 12 general election campaigns by wide margins, and despite weighing a U.S. Senate run in 1990, remained in the House for the duration of his political career.

As a House freshman, Matsui initially was assigned to the Government Operations and Judiciary Committees. One year later, he left Judiciary and won a seat on the influential Interstate and Commerce Committee (later named Energy and Commerce), an assignment previously held by his predecessor John Moss.16 As a sophomore in the 97th Congress (1981–1983), Matsui left his other committee assignments for a post on the exclusive Ways and Means Committee and a spot on the Select Committee on Narcotics. In the 100th Congress (1987–1989), Matsui left Narcotics, and in the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), he joined the Budget Committee.

It was with the assistance of the California delegation and House leadership that Matsui received the coveted Ways and Means seat.17 When he became the first Asian-American Member to serve on that panel, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, the committee’s autocratic chairman, commented that Matsui was philosophically “a pretty good package.”18 In 1993 Matsui became interim chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, succeeding Harold Ford Sr. of Tennessee.19 A year later, Matsui was tapped again to serve as an interim chair, this time on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade when Sam Gibbons of Florida moved up to chair the full committee. “The trade subcommittee has a number of important issues to address this year, and it will take a concerted effort by our members to meet the challenges ahead of us,” Matsui said. “I have the utmost confidence in our committee’s ability to meet those challenges.”20 Matsui later left the Subcommittee on Trade and moved to the Subcommittee on Social Security.

On the Ways and Means Committee for most of his congressional career, Matsui used his knowledge of the tax code and the memory of his family’s experience with internment to help further social change and to look out for the needs of the most vulnerable Americans. In 1985 Ways and Means took center stage as the Ronald Reagan administration pushed a plan to overhaul the tax code. With Matsui’s assistance, Chairman Rostenkowski managed to push through the politically difficult bill (H.R. 3838). The legislation—eventually signed into law as the Tax Reform Act of 1986—reduced the number of tax brackets, altered corporate tax rates, streamlined deductions, and increased personal tax exemptions.21 In an op-ed, Matsui argued that the bill, “is fairer and better than the current tax code.” He added, “It may not be perfect,” but “a whole lot more low- and middle-income Americans will be enjoying more of the fruits of their own labor.”22

Matsui also used his seat on the Ways and Means Committee to push for social equality. “If you think about welfare reform, if you think about the immigrant-bashing, if you think about Medicare/Medicaid cuts, essentially they’re going after the powerless groups that have no constituency that is vocal, that votes, that are involved in the political process,” he once observed.23 Matsui challenged the William J. (Bill) Clinton administration to ensure that its welfare reform proposals did not place unrealistic burdens on the recipients of federal aid. During Ways and Means subcommittee testimony in the 103rd Congress, Matsui confronted officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, “Can you discuss this with me in a way that I will feel satisfied and comfortable that we can move forward and that these people will not be screwed?”24 He railed against President George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security, challenging the administration to produce a solid plan. “If the president and leaders of his party are serious about Social Security reform, I urge them to come forward with a concrete legislative proposal,” he said.25

In the House, Robert Matsui championed the cause of Japanese-American redress. Joined by fellow California Representative Norman Y. Mineta, who also spent part of his childhood in internment camps, Matsui fought for reparations. From the beginning, Matsui declared he would not accept any monetary compensation to keep detractors from accusing him of self-interest.26 During testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Governmental Affairs in 1983, Matsui mourned Japanese Americans’ loss of constitutional rights.27

In the 99th Congress (1985–1987), Matsui and Mineta first introduced the Japanese American reparations bill, the Civil Liberties Act. It was assigned the symbolic number H.R. 442 to honor the Japanese-American 442nd Combat Team, one of the most decorated units of World War II (Senators Spark M. Matsunaga and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii served in the 442nd). Referred to the Judiciary Committee, the bill did not make it to the floor. But in the 100th Congress, Mineta and Matsui steered the Civil Liberties Act to House passage on September 17, 1987.28 In an emotional House Floor speech, Matsui retold his family’s heart-wrenching story of being uprooted from their home.29 In the Senate, Spark Matsunaga introduced the legislation and led the effort to get the bill to the Senate Floor, where it passed with bipartisan support.30 In August 1988, it won final passage and was signed into law by President Reagan. The Civil Liberties Act recognized the injustice of internment, issued a formal apology to internees, and provided each surviving internee a sum of $20,000 from the United States government.31

In the final year of the George H. W. Bush administration, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) became a top issue before Congress. The controversial implementation legislation had become a focal point of the 1992 presidential election cycle and a divisive issue for Democrats.32 Democrats in the House worried about their working-class base and the potential loss of jobs if companies moved to Mexico for cheaper labor. By the time NAFTA came up for consideration in the House, a pro-NAFTA Democrat, Bill Clinton, was President. But the measure, H.R. 3450, was opposed by Democratic leadership, including Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Whip David Bonior of Michigan. Unable to rely on his party’s Whip operation, which was actively rallying support against the legislation, President Clinton turned to Matsui, a free trade proponent and an influential member on the Ways and Means Committee.33 Without the formal Whip’s office, Matsui led the Democratic House NAFTA Liaison Group.34 He managed most of the floor debate in lieu of the bill’s sponsor, Ways and Means Chairman Rostenkowski. Matsui also persuaded Republican colleagues to gather the necessary House votes, noting that “many of us as we began this process of NAFTA, just as you felt about us, had trepidations about whether each of us could trust each other.… Democrats and Republicans, feel that we have reached a new beginning with each other.”35 Led by Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, most Republicans stood behind the trade agreement. With only 102 House Democrats supporting the bill, it passed, 234 to 200.36 President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law on December 8, 1993.37

On the whole, Matsui supported free trade policies and stayed true to that interest throughout his congressional career. In 2000 he was called upon again by the Clinton administration to help gather the necessary votes to grant permanent normal trade relations with China (H.R. 4444).38

Initially hesitant to accept the job of rounding up the votes, Matsui was convinced by Commerce Secretary William Daley.39 The China trade bill had two main hurdles to overcome to win support : its economic impact in America and China’s human rights record. During debate, Matsui addressed the economic benefits and turned his attention to human rights. “Now, let me also talk about the issue of human rights. China’s human rights record is terrible. We understand that. We, obviously, should put the focus on them, and we believe that the Levin–Bereuter bill, will, in fact, do that. But what is really interesting is that many of the Chinese dissidents that have the luxury of living in the United States are opposed to this. But those that live in China, the Chinese Democracy Movement, they want us to pass this, because they want to engage the United States. They think if they gain economic power, they will be able to oppose the central government of China. So we need to vote yes on this legislation for the future of our country and certainly, for prosperity and peace throughout the world.”40

Matsui’s pragmatic approach to the idea that open trade would promote human rights allowed him to focus on the benefits while rounding up the necessary votes. The effort underscored his reputation as a legislative workhorse. “I enjoy trying to work through a strategy on how you get 218 votes,” he said.41 Matsui saw the open market with China as imperative. “I’ve always believed that technology and trade were the two engines that really drive economic growth,” he observed. “If we want to continue to be the number one nation in the world when it comes to job creation, when it comes to leading the cutting edge, we have to understand that these things are important.”42 The trade relations bill passed the House 237 to 197 and was signed into law on October 10, 2000.

In December 2002, fellow Californian and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi tapped Matsui to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which supports Democratic House candidates. Matsui was accustomed to fundraising for the party, having co-chaired the party’s fundraising commission and serving as the party treasurer during the Clinton administration.43 As the chair of the DCCC, Matsui assumed the position as the chief fundraiser. In making the announcement, Pelosi noted that Matsui’s “legislative and political acumen,” made him a natural choice.44 Upon his selection, Matsui commented, “I think this gives me an opportunity to play a significant role in our efforts to take the House back.” He added, “It’s an added responsibility, there’s no question, but it’s one where I’ll be able to play a leadership role in terms of the 2004 elections.”45

But, following the 2004 election cycle, Matsui’s health deteriorated. After a brief battle with pneumonia, complicated by a rare blood disease, the 63-year-old Congressman died on January 1, 2005, in Bethesda, Maryland, surrounded by his family. A private person, Matsui had not publicly disclosed his illness, so his sudden passing came as a shock to the congressional community, which held a special memorial service in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Attending the ceremony, former President Bill Clinton eulogized Matsui as embodying “everything that was right with America. And whether he was right on every issue or not, and whether every battle we fought together was the right position or not, he was the right sort of person.”46 Matsui’s friend, political commentator Norm Ornstein, recalled the Californian’s depth of knowledge on the issues and his equally deep commitment to his constituents. “Bob became a world-class expert on welfare and Social Security,” Ornstein said “He was a policy wonk who loved politics, a gentle man who had a fierce attachment to his values and policy views, a partisan who wanted to work with those across the aisle, and a man who could use ferocious rhetoric to defend the downtrodden but who seemed to have no enemies, even among those he excoriated.”47 In his home state of California, Robert Matsui’s body lay in state at the capitol in Sacramento. In March 2005, Doris Matsui succeeded her husband in a special election, winning the election with 68 percent to continue, as she put it, “Bob’s work” in the House.48


1Deb Kollars and Will Evans, “Hundreds Say Last Goodbye to Congressman; Touching Tributes Flow As Colleagues, Family, Friends and Others Praise the Sacramento Native,” 9 January 2005, Sacramento Bee: n.p.

2Betty Cuniberti, “Internment: Personal Voices, Powerful Choices,” 4 October 1987, Los Angeles Times: n.p.

3William Eaton, “Internee Payment Bill Gets Final OK,” 5 August 1988, Los Angeles Times: 1.

4Cuniberti, “Internment: Personal Voices, Powerful Choices.”


6Robert T. Matsui, interview by Brian Lamb, American Profile Series, C-SPAN, 4 October 1988, life-career-robert-matsui&start=1145 (accessed 13 January 2017).

7“Matsui, Robert T.,” Current Biography Yearbook 1994 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1994): 368.


9Sam Stanton and Steve Gibson, “Council Win Was First of Many,” 3 January 2005, Sacramento Bee: A10.

10Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1989): 102–103.

11Stanton and Gibson, “Council Win Was First of Many.”

12Almanac of American Politics, 1976 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1975): 56–58.

13Martin Nolan, “O’Neill Lends Celebrity Status to Congressional Candidates,” 21 October 1978, Boston Globe: 24; W. Dale Nelson, no title, 5 November 1978, Associated Press.

14W. B. Rood, “3rd District Campaigners Spending Big,” 21 October 1978, Los Angeles Times: A23; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

15“Mr. Matsui Goes to Washington,” archived video, 4:14, from NBC Nightly News on 4 February 1978, accessed 4 April 2016,

16Garrison Nelson, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947–1992, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1994): 642–643.

17Richard Lyons, “On Capitol Hill,” 25 January 1979, Washington Post: A2; Martin Tolchin, “Congress Plays Party Games by Committee,” 25 January 1981, New York Times: E5.

18Tolchin, “Congress Plays Party Games by Committee.”

19Hearing before the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources, Selected Aspects of Welfare Reform, 103rd Cong., 1st sess., (30 March 1993); “Harold E. Ford, Sr.,” Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, 1774–Present,

20Gerard Lim, “Matsui Named Chair of Trade Subcommittee,” 17 June 1994, AsianWeek: 3.

21Tax Reform Act of 1986, H.R. 3838, 99th Cong. (1986); “House Approves Major Rewrite of Tax Code,” CQ Almanac, 1985, 41st ed. (Washington, DC : Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1986): 480–498; Steven W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2002: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003): 325.

22Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 99th Cong., 1st sess. (16 December 1985): E5638.

23Julie Ha, “Congressman Matsui Criticizes Proposed Medicare Cuts: GOP Plan an Assault on the Elderly,” 31 October 1995, Examiner: 9.

24Hearings before the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources, Welfare Reform Proposals, Including H.R. 4605, the Work and Responsibility Act of 1994, Part 1, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. (26–28 July 1994): 342.

25Robert Matsui, “What Can Congress Do To Stabilize the Future of Social Security?” 6 December 2004, Roll Call: n.p.

26Hearings before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Administrative Law and Governmental Relations, Japanese-American and Aleutian Wartime Relocation, 98th Cong., 2nd sess., (20–21, 27 June 1984 and 12 September 1984): 24.

27Japanese-American and Aleutian Wartime Relocation: 24.

28Civil Liberties Act of 1987, H.R. 442, 100th Cong. (1987).

29Congressional Record, House, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (17 September 1987): 24304.

30S.1009, 100th Cong. (1987).

31Public Law 100-383, 102 Stat. 903 (1988).

32“Congress OKs North American Trade Pact,” CQ Almanac, 1993, 49th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1994): 172–176.

33Kevin Merida, “The Whip Lashes Out,” 10 November 1993, Washington Post: C1.

34Politics in America, 1998 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1997): 100. House Republicans worked separately with their own NAFTA whip group. See “Congress OKs North American Trade Pact”: 178.

35Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (17 November 1993): H29945.

36“Congress OKs North American Trade Pact”: 178.

37North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Implementation Act, H.R. 3450, 103rd Cong. (1993).

38Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 77; H.R. 4444, 106th Cong. (2000).

39Ann Scott Tyson, “The Fine Art of Twisting Arms for China Trade,” 19 May 2000, Christian Science Monitor: 1.

40Congressional Record, House, 106th Congress, 2nd sess. (24 May 2000): H3671.

41Matthew Vitta, “On Hill, Clinton Turns to Calif. Free-Trader; Matsui Has Key Role on China Legislation,” 5 April 2000, Washington Post: A17.

42Vitta, “On Hill, Clinton Turns to Calif. Free-Trader.”

43Paul Houston, “Matsui Named to Top Fund-Raising Post Politics: He and Rockefeller Will Head Democrats’ Contribution Drive For 1992 Elections,” 5 September 1991, Los Angeles Times: 20; Michael Doyle, “Matsui Takes Top Fund-Raising Role,” 24 December 2002, Sacramento Bee: A1.

44Doyle, “Matsui Takes Top Fund-Raising Role.”


46Memorial Address and Other Tributes Held in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States Together With the Memorial Services in Honor of Robert T. Matsui, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2006): 14.

47Norman Ornstein, “Bob Matsui: Wonk, Fighter, and All-Around Great Guy,” 26 January 2005, Roll Call: n.p.

48Kevin Yamamura and David Whitney, “Matsui’s Widow Launches Campaign for Congress,” 13 January 2005, Sacramento Bee: A3.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

California State University, Sacramento
Special Collections & University Archives

Sacramento, CA
Electronic records: Amount unknown. The Honorable Robert T. Matsui Legacy Project website contains digital reproductions of select photographs, documents, video and audio clips from public sources and the Matsui family. The focal point of the website is on Robert T. Matsui and his leadership in Congress working to secure redress and reparations for Japanese Americans following the incarceration and exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States during World War II. The website is accessible at the following web link:

University of California, Berkeley
Bancroft Library

Berkeley, CA
Papers: ca. 1940-2006, 306.25 linear feet. The Robert T. Matsui papers consist primarily of files Matsui compiled during his career as a politician. The bulk of the collection is comprised of materials documenting Matsui's work in the United States House of Representatives as Congressman for California's Sacramento district, especially pertaining to his lengthy service on the Ways and Means Committee; also prominent in the collection are Matsui's office and press files, personal correspondence, campaign and political files and a limited amount of Sacramento City Council materials. The collection encompasses a range of materials--including correspondence, legislative addresses, campaign literature, press releases, schedules, and ephemera--most notably documenting such legislation and issues as: health care, social security, tax, and welfare reform; the North American Free Trade Agreement and approval of the Uruguay Round Agreements; civil rights and Japanese American internment redress; Sacramento regional water and flood control; and district military base closures. The collection is restricted until January 1, 2020 or the death of Doris Matsui, whichever is later; researchers may apply for access to the collection. Inquiries regarding these materials should be directed, in writing, to the Head of Public Services, The Bancroft Library. The finding aid is available online:
Papers: In the Sierra Club National Legislative Office Records, ca. 1960-1990, 200 linear feet. Persons represented include Robert Matsui.
Papers: In the John Stanton Political Campaign Collection, 1860-2007, amount unknown. Persons represented include Robert Matsui.

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassette: 1988, 2 commercials on 1 videocassette. The commercials used during Robert Matsui's campaign for the 1988 U.S. congressional election in District 3 of California, Democratic Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Robert T. Matsui" in Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900-2017. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of the Historian and the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Publishing Office, 2018.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Interstate and Foreign Commerce
  • House Committee - Judiciary
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control
  • House Committee - Ways and Means
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