Congressman Is Too Busy Being Your Pilot to Show Up in Washington

A rare trip to our nation’s capital. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Outside of House leadership, a small group of extremists, and a few political stars, members of Congress are a pretty anonymous group. And unlike in the Senate, where one lawmaker’s absence is often keenly felt, few notice when a single House member doesn’t show up for a vote. In other words, it’s a decent gig if you want to play hooky from your day job.

Hawaii congressman Kai Kahele is really taking advantage of this dynamic. In a thorough report, the investigative news site Honolulu Civil Beat found that Kahele, a first-term representative, has barely shown up in Washington in the past four months, a fact that seems to have mostly flown under the radar until now. Per the outlet, it appears Kahele has made the trip to D.C. only once during that time:

He skipped President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, was the only member of the state’s federal delegation to miss out on meetings with city officials who were in D.C. to talk to the Federal Transit Administration about the future of Honolulu’s $10 billion rail project and was a no-show for a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week to discuss the Department of Defense’s $773 billion budget request for fiscal year 2023.

So far in 2022, Kahele has only cast five votes in person, all of them over the course of three days in January.

Kahele’s truancy has led to complaints from lobbyists (not generally the most sympathetic crew, but still) that his office has been unresponsive to their entreaties and that he hasn’t been involved enough in the committees he sits on.

An absence this extended is due in large part to proxy voting, a practice adopted by the House in May 2020 amid the first wave of the pandemic. Last week, in a letter naming a new proxy who would cast his votes for him, Kahele explained, “I continue to be unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.” Honolulu Civil Beat reports that Kahele is so fearful about contracting COVID that he has been … “traveling around Hawaii, including between islands, to meet with local officials and constituents and hold press events while courting a run for the governor’s office.” It didn’t take much digging to uncover the disconnect between Kahele’s words and his actions. The evidence is right there on his Instagram feed:

Virus fears are also not stopping Kahele from pursuing his side gig as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot (apparently, being a member of Congress really isn’t that full-time a position). This job earned Kahele $120,000 in 2020, per a financial-disclosure form. That’s on the ’gram too, naturally. (The “hang loose” gesture is a motif on his feed.)

In response to queries from Politico, which noted that outside incomes for members of Congress are capped by law at $29,000 a year, Kahele’s office said he flies “occasional flights to maintain his certification” and doesn’t actually make $120,000 a year. Since Kahele didn’t take office until 2021, his 2020 earnings wouldn’t get him in trouble in any case.

Still, this is all particularly rich because when Kahele was mounting a primary campaign against Tulsi Gabbard, who occupied his congressional seat before him, he said that “what Hawaii needs is a full-time representative in Congress who will show up and whose sole focus is fighting on behalf of the people of the 2nd Congressional District.”

It’s not ideal to make a fuss about members of Congress being fully engaged with the job, then fail to live up to your own promises. But can we blame a guy for wanting to hang out in Maui instead of Washington?

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Congressman Is Too Busy Being Your Pilot to Show Up in D.C.