Akaka takes over helm of VA committee
The Senator is expected to raise the VA profile in Hawaii
WASHINGTON » U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka is the first of a trio of Hawaii congressmen to take control of a committee or subcommittee on the new Democratic-controlled Capitol Hill.
Yesterday Akaka took over as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He has been a member of the committee since 1990. Before Democrats assumed the majority, Akaka was the Democrat with the most seniority on the 14-person committee.
ON ASSIGNMENTHonolulu Star-Bulletin Capitol Bureau Chief Richard Borreca will be filing reports from Washington, D.C., all this week on Hawaii's congressional delegation as the new Democratic majority in Congress takes power.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye is set to take over as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie is going to become chairman of a subcommittee on the Army and Air Force.
Yesterday's Senate meeting to organize the Veterans Affairs Committee featured the passing of the gavel from Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to Akaka.
Recalling how last year the committee "was forced to cobble together a final legislative package ... in 48 hours," Akaka said he wanted to finish its work for the year by June.
The first hearings, set for later this month, will deal with how the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense work with those leaving the armed services, Akaka said.
"It is clear to me that the desired level of cooperation and collaboration between the DOD and the VA has not been achieved," Akaka said.
The problems with the VA have grown more intense, Akaka said, because now the VA must deal with National Guard or reserve troops wounded or injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"I want to know what is happening with members of the guard and reserves," Akaka said during yesterday's hearing.
Also, Akaka said he would explore how the VA is handling the aging population of World War II vets.
Attending the hearing was Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who said he wanted the committee to focus the VA's attention on helping homeless veterans.
Last year Akaka and the committee held four hearings in Hawaii, which Akaka said resulted in the VA adding $1 million to "mental health initiatives" in Hawaii. As chairman, Akaka is expected to increase committee visits to Hawaii.
While the House yesterday was passing a bill to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, Akaka participated in Senate hearings on that issue.
He said the commission had noted that terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida know more about the United States than we know about Arab or Muslim culture. Akaka said the United States at least should improve foreign language studies.
"Following 9/11, the FBI scrambled to find agents capable of speaking Iraqi. The ability of federal agents to recruit agents with language skills is directly tied to the ability of U.S. schools to teach foreign languages," Akaka said.
Appearing before the committee yesterday was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who responded to Akaka by saying the New York Police Department has more officers who speak Arabic than does the federal government.
"You couldn't be more right, Senator Akaka," Bloomberg said. He joked that perhaps the federal government could hire the NYPD to help with Arabic translations.