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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 4, 2006

Akaka bill deserves a full and fair debate

Election-year politics has turned up the heat under our U.S. senators. Whether their sheer determination will be enough to pop the Akaka bill onto the Senate floor after six years is anyone's guess, but it's at least a breath of hope for a measure that can't seem to get a break. The latest discouraging news came from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has taken an ill-informed position against the legislation.

The bill named for Hawai'i's junior senator, Daniel Akaka, who is facing a re-election challenge would extend federal recognition to Native Hawaiians, creating a political status for the indigenous people of Hawai'i akin to what's available to Native Americans and Alaskans.

Federal recognition would help chart a course for the difficult but necessary process of resolving festering disputes and in healing the breach caused by the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. In particular, the process would bring clarity to the clouded issue of the "ceded lands" that moved from ownership by the Hawaiian crown and government to federal control a century ago.

The Akaka bill lays out the process by which the federal government would recognize the "reorganized" Hawaiian entity, representatives of the Hawaiian people charged with handling these issues as well as future matters.

Federal recognition isn't perfect, and the bill's unanswered questions about the power of this entity and other issues leave many feeling rightfully uneasy. The debate over the bill reveals a sharp divide between its friends and foes. Opponents are split further: Some feel it isn't enough recompense and others believe Hawaiians should put that part of the past behind them. It's a complex and emotional issue that few on Capitol Hill or, apparently, on the civil rights panel grasp completely.

However, this measure forges a middle path, the most reasonable course toward resolution if only Congress would give it a shot. The bill has cleared the House in the past but always stalled in the Senate. Even if it does finally get a vote on the floor, the odds against it moving through the House again for passage are long.

You have to appreciate the power of political theatrics, because clearly that's what it's taking to get this bill heard. Just prodding the bill to the floor is a high-stakes challenge for Akaka, who wants to demonstrate his political acumen, and for the senior senator, Daniel K. Inouye, who supports Akaka's re-election. Failing to get the bill heard wouldn't play well in the exchanges Akaka faces with challenger Rep. Ed Case this fall.

Political gamesmanship aside, the measure has merit. At the very least, it deserves a full and fair debate.