Hawaii governor Lingle lobbies GOP for Akaka Bill passage

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle wrote a letter to Republicans in the U.S. Senate urging passage of the controversial Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (S. 147), commonly known as the Akaka Bill after Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), its main proponent.

In a letter dated May 15, 2006 addressed to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Lingle cited a recent report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that urged defeat of the measure on the grounds that it is racially based, calling it a "misguided action" and saying that it was based on a "grossly flawed understanding of the history of Hawaii and of the law itself."

Lingle cited the fact that Native Hawaiians were governed by their own leaders prior to Western contact, and that the U.S. itself recognized Hawaii as a sovereign nation and entered into treaties with it as far back as 1826. After the overthrow of the monarchy and Hawaii's subsequent annexation in 1900, the government of the former kingdom was "subordinated to the federal government," Lingle said, asserting that Native Hawaiians' relationship to the U.S. has been political in nature rather than purely racial. She claims that this relationship was not adequately reflected in the Civil Rights Commission's report.

Opponents of the Akaka Bill have disputed the accuracy of Lingle's claims, as well as those of her Attorney General, Mark J. Bennett. They point out that throughout the Hawaiian Kingdom period, through the annexation of Hawaii and into statehood, no racial group in Hawaii ever had an exclusive government for their race alone, and that the Akaka Bill specifically creates a new government based on race, not on politics.

Attached to her letter was a three-page summary written by Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett, outlining the state government's criticisms of the CRC's report. Bennett said that the report reflected "a complete lack of understanding of this country's longstanding practice of dealing specially with its native peoples." Bennett also cited congressional precedent in legislation that compares the situation of Native Hawaiians to that of Native Americans. Bennett sums up the criticism by saying that there is "simply no legal or moral distinction between Native Hawaiians and American Indians or Alaska Natives, that would justify denying Native Hawaiians the same treatment other Native American groups in this country currently enjoy."

According to the Civil Rights Commission's report, a panel of experts briefed the commission on January 20, 2006; and public comment was solicited until March 21, 2006. The Commission noted that most of the comments received were in opposition to the legislation, and that while the supporters "took great pains to analogize the situation of Native Hawaiians with those of Native Americans," many of the opponents argued, "in very personal terms, that the proposed legislation would be inconsistent with basic American principles of equality, traditional Hawaiian values, and their own personal ethics."

In the end, the Commission recommended against passage of S. 147 as reported out of committee or any similar bill 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 commission members reportedly rejected the conclusion and are expected to file formal dissents.

Frist had pledged to file a cloture motion before the Senate to bring the measure to a vote when the body returns from May recess. Should 60 of the 100 senators approve the cloture motion, a vote would occur after a maximum of 30 hours of debate. The bill, if approved by the Senate, would still need to pass the House by the end of the year.