U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who has said he plans to retire after his current term expires next year, spoke on the Senate floor this morning as he re-introduced a bill to grant federal recognition for native Hawaiians, renewing his effort to win passage of a proposal that has been before Congress since 1999.
Akaka and Democratic colleague, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, introduced the latest version of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act today.
"This bill would ensure parity in federal policy as it relates to the Native Hawaiian people," Akaka said on the Senate floor. "It would put them on equal footing with American Indians and Alaska natives"
Democratic U.S. Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa are expected to introduce the same bill in the House.
Known by the name of its primary sponsor, the so-called Akaka Bill would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own governing entity and negotiate with federal and state governments on land use and cultural issues. The federal recognition would be similar to that of American Indians and Alaska natives.
The bill would establish an office within the Department of Interior to serve as a liaison between native Hawaiians and the federal government, while also authorizing the creation of an interagency task force composed of officials from federal agencies that administer programs and services impacting native Hawaiians, Akaka said.
Once recognized, the negotiation process would be established.
"There are many checks and balances in this process," Akaka said in his floor speech. "Any agreements reached would still require the legislative approval of the state and federal governments."
He said the bill does not include provisions to allow for gambling, nor does it set forth a process by which Hawaii may secede from the United States. It also does not allow for private land to be taken or for the creation of a reservation in Hawaii, he added.
The latest proposal is the version negotiated with the Justice Department in late 2009 and passed out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that year, Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said.
The language was proposed by the White House and negotiated privately by the Justice Department and the state’s congressional delegation.
Then-Gov. Linda Lingle had been a strong backer of the legislation but withdrew her support for the Obama administration’s version, arguing it did not protect the state’s rights and interests as the new governing entity was being formed.
The newer version would immediately give the native Hawaiian entity many of the rights enjoyed by American Indian tribal governments and would add more provisions detailing how a person could qualify as a native Hawaiian.
Van Dyke said the latest version is supported by the Justice Department, which would have to defend the measure in court.
"They’ve told us very strongly their job is a lot easier if the bill parallels existing Indian law and doesn’t have exemptions the former governor requested," he said.
Many observers felt the bill was poised to pass the last two years with a Democratic-controlled Congress — including a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate – and support from the White House.
In one of his last acts before resigning from the U.S. House in February 2010 to run for governor, then-Rep. Neil Abercrombie shepherded a version of the bill through a 245-164 vote along party lines.
But the bill stalled in the Senate as key Republicans withdrew support, following Lingle’s lead. Additionally, the January 2010 special election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy ended the Democrats’ 60-member majority and their ability to overcome procedural roadblocks.
By July of last year, the state delegation had negotiated a compromise version of the bill that was acceptable to Lingle, but it was never brought before the Senate as Congress debated weightier issues including health care reform, extension of Bush Administration tax cuts and the repeal of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.
Following the November elections, in which Republicans took control of the House, Akaka introduced the compromise measure during the "lame duck" session of Congress. Van Dyke said the introduction was done because Akaka wanted to honor the agreement with Lingle.
Van Dyke said Akaka hopes to work with colleagues in the Senate as well as the new GOP leadership in the House to get the bill passed.
The Akaka Bill has broad support within Hawaii’s political establishment, including from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, along with the backing of many Hawaiian civic groups. Many Republicans oppose the bill as unconstitutional race-based discrimination because it would treat Hawaiians differently from other state residents.
Some Hawaiian sovereignty activists are against the bill because they believe it would interfere with the potential restoration of an independent kingdom.