BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – The U.S. Civil Rights Commission on Tuesday reiterated its opposition to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act – legislation nicknamed the “Akaka Bill” in honor of Hawaii’s U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka that creates a native Hawaiian sovereign government within the state with its own powers relating to taxation, land ownership, regulation, law enforcement, and more.
The Commission delivered two letters to the U.S. Senate Democratic leadership in response to reports that Hawaii’s Senior Senator, Daniel Inouye, is working quickly behind closed doors to attach the controversial legislation to an appropriations or budget measure, rather than letting it pass or fail on its own merit.
The first letter (USCCR Akaka letter sent 12.07.10) reads: “We understand that there is a possibility that the new and significantly revised version of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act will be tacked onto the spending bill in the next week or so. We hope that this does not happen. A bill as important as this deserves careful consideration. It would be a matter for concern if it were to be made law without a hearing on its new provisions. The current version of the legislation may create new problems and exacerbate those previously identified, but because the changes to the bill do not eliminate the serious constitutional concerns identified in previous communications, our position remains the same”
The second letter (USCCR Akaka letter sent 08.28.09) was a copy of a 2009 letter delivered to Congress detailing problems the U.S. Civil Rights Commission sees in the legislation, which reads in part: “The Commission recommends against passage of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act … or any other legislation 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. … We do not believe Congress has the constitutional authority to ‘reorganize’ racial or ethnic groups into dependent sovereign nations unless those groups have a long and continuous history of separate self-governance. Moreover, quite apart from the issue of constitutional authority, creating such an entity sets a harmful precedent. Ethnic Hawaiians will surely not be the only group to demand such treatment. On what ground will Congress tell these other would-be tribes no?”
The Commission’s letter sent Tuesday follows a similar statement made last week by four Republican U.S. Senators including Senators Jon Kyl, (R-Ariz.,) Lamar Alexander, (R-Tenn.), John Cornyn, (R-Texas) and Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.).
“Legislation as highly complex and divisive as the native Hawaiian bill requires vigorous discussion, debate, and amendments. An attempt to include it in unrelated legislation to keep the government operating is a breach of process and is an example of what the American people are tired of – back room deals that are inserted in secret packages written behind closed doors,” Kyl said.
Alexander said, “I’m concerned by reports that a special Native Hawaiian bill, or any other controversial measure, might be quietly inserted into must-pass legislation that’s needed to keep the government open. If the Democratic majority wishes to pass legislation that would create a new, sovereign government within our borders based solely upon race, it should be brought up separately and debated openly on the Senate floor with the opportunity for amendment.”
The Akaka Bill, in all of its various formed introduced and reintroduced since 2000, is strongly opposed by the nation’s leading conservative and libertarian groups who believe the legislation is race-based and racially divisive and by native Hawaiian activists who believe the U.S. government illegally overthrew the crown in 1893 and therefore does not have authority over them.
Critics point out that the bill language has been changed many times since it was introduced, all in private negotiations behind closed doors; that there have been no hearings on the current language of the bill; and there have been no public forums on this new bill in Hawaii.
Pushing for the bill are all four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, Hawaii’s Republican governor and lieutenant governor, elected officers of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and their supporters. The majority of Hawaii lawmakers also back the legislation.
While President Barack Obama, a former Hawaii resident, has promised to sign the measure into law, President George W. Bush and his Justice Department were opposed. While it passed the House twice, the Senate never voted on the measure.
Inouye has pledged in the past not to hide the legislation. Peter Boylan, media spokesperson for Hawaii’s senior senator, told Hawaii Reporter last week that he does not know of such a plan and has heard nothing to indicate that it is true. He maintains that as far as he knows, Inouye is remaining consistent on his pledge not to hide the legislation in an appropriations bill. Boylan could not be reached for comment today on the Civil Rights Commission statement.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan agency that “makes appraisals of the laws and policies of the Federal Government with respect to discrimination or denials of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution of the United States because of color, race, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.”
The Commission reports that its members voted 5-2-1 to send this letter with Commissioners Arlan Melendez and Michael Yaki voted against sending the letter, Vice Chair Abigail Thernstrom abstaining and Commissioners Peter Kirsanow, Ashley Taylor, Jr., Gail Heriot, Todd Gaziano and Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds voting in favor. The letter notes that “Commissioners Reynolds and Taylor’s terms as Commissioners expired on December 5, 2010. Each indicated his willingness to sign this letter on December 5.”