Congress advised to reject Akaka bill
By Michelle Diament
Advertiser Washington Bureau
and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michelle Diament
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended yesterday that Congress reject a bill granting federal recognition and self-government rights to Hawaiians.
The action was a blow to supporters of the controversial bill, which was introduced six years ago by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, and other members of the Hawai'i delegation.
Akaka said in a written statement that his goal is still to have the bill heard on the Senate floor.
"I believe that the majority of my colleagues will look at all the facts presented in making their decision whether or not to support it," Akaka said.
He also criticized the commission as politically motivated.
"The commission's failure to give a fair and thorough review of my bill concerns me greatly. It is unfortunate that a body with such a noble mission has succumbed to a political agenda. At a minimum, the members of the Hawaii State Advisory Committee to the Commission ought to have been consulted about the briefing and asked to contribute to the report."
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, also criticized the panel.
"I was dismayed to learn that the (commission) voted ... to adopt a seriously flawed report that unfairly characterizes the Akaka bill as race-based and discriminatory," Inouye said in a release.
"From what I have learned, not only does the report have significant errors of fact and history, but the process in which the commission considered the report was also highly suspect," he said. "The meeting was disorganized and unprofessional; commissioners were forced to take a 10-minute break because they did not understand what they were voting on. Given those factors, how can anyone give credence to its report?"
TWO REJECT REPORT
In a draft of the commission report that was the basis of yesterday's discussion and vote, the Akaka bill was criticized as a measure that "would discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups accorded varying degrees of privilege."
Two of the seven commissioners voted against the report, saying that the legislation would rightfully recognize the status of Native Hawaiians as indigenous people of the United States, just like Native Americans and Native Alaskans.
"Your argument is if we say yes, who else do we have to say yes to," Commissioner Michael Yaki said. "But what I wonder is if we say no then how do we explain to them why Native Americans and Native Alaskans have that right."
The commissioners who supported the report said they agreed with some of the statements made by Yaki and Commissioner Arlan Melendez, who also voted against the report. Ultimately, however, the majority of commissioners did not feel that Hawaiians deserve sovereignty.
"I think that the notion of distributing benefits and burdens to different groups of people moves away from that overarching sense of us all as Americans," said Gerald Reynolds, the commission's chairman. "With every success there is another group that will come and use the argument of the successful group."
The federal commission serves as an advisory body only. It includes four Republicans, two Democrats and an independent.
LOCAL PANEL'S INPUT?
Earlier this week, members of the Hawai'i State Advisory Committee to the commission criticized the federal panel for failing to consult with them before issuing its report. Yesterday, long-time advisory committee member Charles Ka'uluwehi Maxwell said he will resign from the panel as a result of the decision.
"It's pathetic that (President Bush's) nominees failed completely to look at our past history as a state advisory commission, and the hearings we had here, which showed unanimously that the Native Hawaiians were denied equal rights when Queen Lili'uokalani was overthrown, when Hawai'i was annexed to the United States and even during the statehood act," said Maxwell, a member of the commission since 1974.
One victory for Yaki and Melendez came when the commission struck the findings section from the report. That section discussed laws governing Native American tribes and the history of the Hawaiian people and included statements that the two commissioners said were factually incorrect.
The deletion of the findings section was small consolation since much of it was erroneous, said Clyde Namu'o, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which has been at the forefront of support for the bill.
"For us, it's really important because those findings were so offensive," Namu'o said.
Local opponents of the Akaka bill were happy with the recommendation, however.
Ikaika Hussey, a member of Hui Pu, an umbrella group of Native Hawaiian groups opposed to the Akaka bill because they feel it does not go far enough in providing reparations, said the recommendation shows that Hawaiians should not be dealing the U.S. government in the first place.
"I think that the fact that the Civil Rights Commission voted the way it did on the Akaka bill is an indication that we need to move from talking about the civil rights, which is a very limited way of talking about the issue, to human rights," Hussey said. "We need to talk about what a real reconciliation process is like."
H. William Burgess of the group Aloha for All testified before the commission in Washington, arguing that the bill is race-based. If the bill were to pass, "Congress would be sanctioning racial segregation and they would be violating the territorial integrity of the state of Hawai'i as promised in the Admissions Act," Burgess said.
The Native Hawaiian legislation has been stalled in Congress for six years.
It was slated to be considered by the full Senate last September but was pushed back after Hurricane Katrina and has not yet been rescheduled. There are some indications it could be brought to the Senate floor later this month, but a representative from the Senate majority leader's office said yesterday that there is no specific timetable.
Contact Michelle Diament at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at email@example.com.