U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) announced today that he will assume the Chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and will join the Senate Democratic leadership as Vice Chair of the Steering and Outreach Committee during the current 112th Congress. Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) will assume the Chairmanship of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Senator Akaka will remain on that committee as a senior member. Senator Akaka will also continue to serve on the Armed Services, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs committees.
"I am looking forward to chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and working to address the complex issues facing the indigenous people of our country," said Senator Akaka. "Native communities across the nation face unique challenges, including disparities in economic development, health care, public safety, education and energy development.
"Last month, President Obama announced the United States' support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The President's announcement stresses our country's commitment to strengthening government-to-government relationships with its indigenous people. It is important that we hear from native communities across the nation as we work to strengthen these mutually beneficial relationships. I believe the United States can serve as a model for the rest of the world in the treatment of its first people. I am eager to holo imua - to move forward.
"It has been my incredible honor to chair the Veterans' Affairs Committee during the past four years. I know Senator Murray to be a passionate advocate for veterans, and I look forward to continuing to work with her as a senior Democrat on the committee. Providing our veterans with care and benefits is a non-negotiable cost of war, and during my time as Chairman I have fought to ensure that they receive what they earned. I am proud of all the we have accomplished, including passing bills to prevent suicides, assist family caregivers of injured veterans, improve veterans' mental health care and expand benefits. We passed the largest single-year increase in funding for veterans' care in the history of this nation, and the Post-9/11 GI Bill is already helping thousands of those who have served earn a higher education.
"I am also pleased to join the Senate Democratic leadership team as Vice Chair of the Steering and Outreach committee. This role will keep me in a position to advocate for Hawaii's needs as our party works on legislative efforts."
Senate President Pro Tempore Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said: "A few weeks ago, Senator Akaka and I discussed this matter. He had strong feelings, understandably, on the future of Native Hawaiian self-determination and the rights of all indigenous people in America. It was a difficult meeting because Senator Akaka is a World War II veteran and a longstanding champion of veterans issues. At the time of our meeting, he told me, that as difficult a decision as it may be, he was considering the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs so he could focus on providing for indigenous people in rural communities all across America and to help provide the same kind of recognition for Native Hawaiians already enjoyed by more than 500 indigenous groups. This move does not mean diminished support for veterans. He will remain as a senior Democrat on the committee. Senator Akaka is a World War II veteran and he's always supported Veterans and he will continue to do so."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said: "I am glad to have Senator Akaka join our Democratic leadership team, and I know he will be a strong advocate for America's indigenous people on the Indian Affairs Committee, just as Chairman Inouye was when he was chairman of the committee." said Senator Reid. "He is an important member of our caucus, and I am excited about his new roles."
Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) said: "I am humbled by this Chairmanship not only because of the great veterans I'll serve, but also because of the man whose shoes I'll be working to fill. Senator Akaka has been, and always will be, a champion for his fellow veterans. I know that in the coming years he will continue to be a leader on this Committee, someone who I will rely on heavily, and someone who'll never stop fighting for the veterans of his home state and our nation."
Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said: "Senator Akaka is a long-time friend of Alaska, and I look forward to working with him on the steering committee as his years of experience in Congress will be invaluable. I have the privilege of working with Senator Akaka on the Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees, and I have seen many of his victories for veterans and service members. There is so much that needs to be done on behalf of Alaska Natives and Native Americans and I am grateful that Senator Akaka chose to chair the Indian Affairs Committee. I know that he will be just as committed to the issues facing Native Americans. As a Senator from Alaska, a state where our indigenous people were federally recognized decades ago and have thrived and contributed to our economy ever since, I am a strong supporter of Senator Akaka's efforts to bring parity to Native Hawaiians."
National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel said: "The National Congress of American Indians is eager to work with Chairman Akaka and all of the members of the Committee on Indian Affairs. This is a new era for advancing the federal-tribal relationship under the U.S. Constitution, and I was very glad that Chairman Akaka attended our State of the Indian Nations address today. Chairman Akaka inherits a profound and historic role, and we are looking forward to his leadership."
Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka said: "AFN is delighted that Senator Daniel Akaka has accepted the Chairmanship of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee. We know Senator Akaka as a true friend to Native Americans and know he will work with us to address the challenges and opportunities we face in this still recovering economy. He will be open to new ideas and solutions. "
Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairperson Colette Machado said: "As the only U. S. Senator that is a member of an indigenous community, we are very pleased that Senator Akaka has been named the Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. We at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs stand ready to assist Senator Akaka in any way we can."
Senator Akaka's accomplishments as Chair of the Veterans' Affairs Committee:
Under Senator Akaka's Chairmanship from 2007-2010, the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs produced an unmatched record of accomplishments. A number of new laws enacted under Akaka's leadership are already improving the lives of veterans, servicemembers, and their families. Among them:
The Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 created an advanced appropriation for VA, ensuring sufficient, timely, and predictable funding with which to better serve veterans. VA hospital managers now have the ability to budget from year to year.
The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 established an unprecedented permanent program to support the caregivers of wounded warriors. A family member who chooses to care for an injured veteran at home is eligible for a stipend.
The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act mandated a national veterans' suicide prevention plan, and required that every VA medical facility have a suicide prevention counselor to provide invaluable support to men and women who served their nation.
The Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008 made substantial improvements to veterans' mental health care by addressing issues like PTSD-a signature problem affecting veterans from the most recent conflicts.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill Improvements Act of 2010 improves upon landmark legislation to streamline and make more equitable benefits for this generation's veterans, expanding educational opportunities to a group of National Guard/Reserves who were inadvertently omitted and increasing possibilities by paying benefits for on-job and vocational training.
The Veterans' Benefits Act of 2010 expands insurance options for disabled veterans, upgrades compensation benefits and employment protections, and allows VA to keep using private physicians to quickly and accurately provide veterans with disability evaluations.
In 2008, Senator Akaka lead a successful Senate Floor debate and passage (by a vote of 96-1) of the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007 that would have provided a veterans' pension to Filipino veterans of World War II residing in the U.S. and in the Philippines. That legislation helped pave the way for the inclusion of a provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which enabled one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino World War II veterans who are U.S. citizens, and $9,000 to Filipino World War II veterans who are non-citizens.
"The people of the Philippines did not shy from the call to fight during World War II," said Senator Akaka. "They were true brothers in arms who fought valiantly. The Philippine forces under U.S. command suffered heavy casualties. Congress's action in 1946 to strip them of the recognition they were due was a grave injustice. It is especially regrettable that this wrong was allowed to continue into their twilight years. I am glad we able to give them the recognition and honor they deserve, though it came later than it should have."
During Senator Akaka's time as Chairman of the Committee on Veteran's Affairs he also engaged in active oversight. Some of the most fulfilling victories won for veterans and their families as a result of this oversight:
After learning of a problem with month of death payments from a Maui widow, Senator Akaka initiated an investigation that, to date, has provided almost 200,000 surviving spouses with over $125,000,000 in benefits that had been wrongly withheld after VA had failed to properly implement a law providing for such benefits.
Senator Akaka's oversight prompted VA's Inspector General to conduct a national review to determine whether veterans are being inappropriately charged for treatment related to military sexual trauma (MST).
An investigation into health care of veterans in American Samoa found that veterans with service-connected disabilities were being charged for health care that should have been provided by VA. These veterans are now receiving the needed care without charge.
Many veterans were unaware that they were eligible to receive reimbursement for the cost of medical care for service-connected disabilities treated while their disability claim was pending. After Senator Akaka brought this matter to the attention of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, a new "black box" notice was added to the letter sent to veterans, informing them of their eligibility for reimbursement of VA charges.
With Senator Akaka's oversight, VA has developed an internal electronic database to help claims adjudicators identify ships with dockings or service in inland waterways of Vietnam. Presumed to be exposed to Agent Orange, the crews of these ships are entitled to benefits that were previously denied.