Can The GOP Set Aside Partisan Politics To Find Out What Really Happened In Maui?
A GOP-led oversight committee will host its first hearing Thursday focused on the Maui wildfires. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2022)
Executives from Hawaiian Electric arrived in Washington, D.C., this week as the first congressional hearing into the deadly Aug. 8 Lahaina wildfires is set to begin.
House Republicans are presiding over oversight hearings that committee leaders say are aimed at exploring what caused the fires and how effective federal assistance has been. The first hearing is scheduled to begin Thursday.
But some Democrats, including Hawaii’s congressional representatives, are worried the hearing will be little more than partisan digs aimed at undermining the Democratic administration.
Neither U.S. Rep. James Comer, who leads the House Oversight Committee, or U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is the chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, responded to Civil Beat’s requests for an interview.
U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations who is leading Thursday’s hearing also was unavailable for comment.
Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric, is expected to testify Thursday before members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The publicly traded utility has been a focal point of blame ever since its downed power lines were deemed a likely cause of the early morning fire on Aug. 8 in Lahaina.
The cause of the afternoon fire that eventually consumed much of Lahaina, killing at least 97 people, has not been determined although Maui County officials and plaintiffs in numerous lawsuits have said it was a flare up of the morning fire.
Among the questions she and other witnesses from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and Hawaii State Energy Office will likely be expected to answer are what caused the fires and was there anything that could have been done to prevent such widespread mayhem.
“Shelee is going to be as forthcoming as she can be,” said Jim Kelly, spokesman for Hawaiian Electric. “I can say there’s not going to be a big reveal with some new significant information that hasn’t already been made public before.”
More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed against Hawaiian Electric in response to the fires, putting the company’s future in doubt. The company, however, has tried to push back on the prevailing narrative that it was solely to blame for the devastation.
On Aug. 27, as its stock prices were plummeting, the company put out a statement saying that a downed electrical line was the cause of an early morning fire in Lahaina, but that firefighters had extinguished the blaze.
The company said that its power lines were de-energized by the time a second, more destructive blaze ignited in the same location and that the cause of that fire has yet to be determined.
Kelly said that while Kimura will do her best to answer all of the committee’s questions, that might not be possible given the fact that Hawaiian Electric is still responding to the destruction caused by the Aug. 8 fire as well as investigating how it started in the first place.
“The timing is challenging,” Kelly said. “I think everybody assumes that more will be known many months down the road.”
Partisan divisions in Washington have fueled skepticism about the true intent behind the congressional inquiries and whether Republicans in the House will try to use the disaster to score political points against President Joe Biden and Democrats in advance of the 2024 election.
Members of Hawaii’s delegation have expressed their own concerns about the speed with which Republicans have launched their investigations and have openly questioned the motivations.
When Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy traveled to Maui earlier this month to visit the Lahaina disaster zone, he promised accountability and said that any investigations into the fires should be bipartisan.
So far, however, it appears there’s been little effort to include Democrats in any of the inquiries.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s investigation has been spearheaded by Republicans on the committee. The House Oversight Committee, which is focused on the federal government’s response to the disasters, has followed a similar tack, although no hearings have yet to be scheduled.
U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda, whose district includes Maui, said she’s worried that her colleagues are trying to move too fast.
While accountability is important, she said her colleagues need to remember that Maui is still an active disaster zone and thousands of people are still living out of hotels and Airbnbs while work crews continue to clear toxic debris from the burn site.
“Even to this day we are still in the process of trying to identify all the dead,” Tokuda said. “We’re still trying to find all of our people.”
Tokuda pointed out that this week’s oversight hearing is happening at the same time Republicans in the House are steering the country toward a government shutdown.
If Congress can’t come to an agreement on a temporary spending bill by the end of the week that means federal agencies will be forced to close and thousands of workers will go without pay, although disaster recovery efforts on Maui will continue.
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case said he wants to reserve judgment and take a wait-and-see approach before he calls out his Republican colleagues for political posturing.
“Hearings occur for a lot of different reasons,” Case said. “Sometimes people legitimately want to provide oversight and improve programs, sometimes people want to advance their own agenda and sometimes it’s just pure politics. I think it all gets mixed up here.”
Both committees have been asking legitimate questions about the fires and whether the federal response, particularly as it relates to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been appropriate, Case said.
But like Tokuda he still has concerns about the timing of the inquiries. In fact, he said it makes him “a little suspicious.”
“They don’t have to do this in the middle of an active disaster recovery,” Case said. “People are still in shock and they’re still in mourning. I mean, why now?”
Molly Reynolds is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and has studied partisanship in congressional oversight. She said it’s not uncommon, especially in today’s fractious environment, for politics to take hold during congressional inquires.
“We know from decades of evidence that when the House and White House are controlled by different pirates we will expect to see more aggressive oversight of the executive branch,” Reynolds said. “That’s driven in large part by that partisan divide.”
The dynamics are ever-shifting, she said, and can depend on several different factors, including the target of the investigation, the personalities involved and even the committee of jurisdiction.
For instance, Reynolds said, the House Oversight Committee, which is leading the charge on Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into Biden, is more likely to take a partisan bent as it investigates the president’s response to the disaster than the Energy and Commerce Committee is when drilling down into infrastructure issues that might be applicable to mitigating fire risk in other communities.
A key to successful oversight, at least that which can resonate with the public and lead to actual changes in legislation, Reynolds said, is bipartisanship.
“When we talk about why bipartisanship in oversight matters it’s because it lends credibility to the product and generates something that people will see as trustworthy,” she said.
The importance of cross party cooperation is not lost on U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.
The Florida congresswoman is the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and she says she’s hopeful that the committee’s oversight inquiry can remain bipartisan even in a politically charged environment.
“I’m like everyone else,” Castor said. “I want to know what happened and what could have been done to prevent it.”
Accountability is only one part of the equation, she said. The committee should also use the opportunity to find out what more the federal government can be doing to address the long-term infrastructure needs of Hawaii and other states to modernize the electrical grid and reduce wildfire risk.
Castor said the Energy and Commerce Committee has a history of cutting through partisan divisions.
She pointed to the committee’s investigation of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that she said brought together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to hold corporate executives accountable for the disaster. A similar bipartisan effort took place in 2018 when the committee probed Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis.
“I”m going to do everything I can to make sure this is constructive and that Democrats and Republicans work together to get answers and chart a course forward for Maui,” she said.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.