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Mr. Akaka

Res Publica

March 2003

by Dan Tierney

The same eight words open up every single roll call on the floor of the United States Senate. After a motion is made for a roll call, the presiding senator says the same words verbatim.

"The clerk will call the roll."

And every day since this Congress was sworn in January, the clerk has answered with the first name on the roll.

"Mr. Akaka."

That is the name of perhaps the favorite senator among Washington news personnel. Daniel Kahikina Akaka is the junior senator from Hawaii. He was elected in 1990 in a special election to fill the seat of the late Senator Spark M. Matsunaga. Senator Akaka, a Democrat, has not sponsored any groundbreaking legislation over the past decade. He is never vocal on many issues. In fact, he only comes on the floor of the Senate to make a speech about four times monthly. However, in DC news circles, Senator Akaka receives much more rapport than that résumé suggests.

I interned at Fox News Channel’s Washington, DC Bureau this summer. One of my duties was to watch the Senate floor proceedings on C-SPAN2 for interesting sound bites for the nightly broadcast of Special Report with Brit Hume. After this task, it is not difficult to become very familiar with Senate floor rules.

One of those rules is that when the Senate is in session, something must be happening on the floor, or the Senate must recess. To avoid constant recess, Senators who are speaking often suggest the absence of a quorum, for another rule, not strictly followed, maintains a quorum must be present for business to proceed. When this motion is made, the clerk is instructed by the presiding officer to call the roll. This motion is made at least thirty times daily, primarily to allow for time for the next speaker to make his or her way down to the floor.

As I sat and listened to hundreds of quorum calls, one name was read every single time: that of Senator Akaka. Most quorum calls are suspended after about a minute, so usually the first five Senators’ names alphabetically are read. Although short, these quorum calls were quite popular among Fox News staffers. We all enjoyed hearing the booming voice of the clerk call Senator Akaka’s name. It rolls off the tongue. It’s a funny name of sorts.

Even more commotion was made when Senator Akaka was on the floor of the Senate. This is because, in all actuality, Senator Akaka was hardly ever on the floor of the Senate. He came down for votes of course. Once over my two-month internship Senator Akaka served as presiding officer for a period of ten minutes. Yet, those ten minutes were sheer excitement at Fox. For having a famous name, many had never seen Senator Akaka. Rings of "So that’s what he looks like" echoed the newsroom. Senators Joe Lieberman, Trent Lott, or Ted Kennedy never got this attention when they appeared at the studio in person.

Putting all novelty aside, though, there is a great respect in Washington for Senator Akaka. While he is neither a demagogue nor a media pundit, it is exactly what Senator Akaka is an advocate for that earns him his great rapport. To be specific, it is simply one issue he advocates: Hawaii.

In an age where we are used to seeing the powerful men and women of the Senate on our Televisions nightly debating the national issues that affect us, this is what makes Senator Akaka refreshing. Out of all 100 United States Senators, Senator Akaka is truly the only senator who speaks and acts solely on what his state wants. He works as an advocate for the environment as Hawaiians are extremely concerned with preserving their islands’ beauty. All of his floor speeches are generally about the indigenous peoples of Hawaii and Asian Americans, for he and most Hawaiians share both those heritages. Senator Akaka usually isn’t on the floor, but in his office greeting Hawaiians or assisting constituents back home. He truly is an advocate for Hawaii and nothing else.

If one were to look at the framers’ intentions for the Senate, perhaps Senator Akaka is the only Senator who acts as the framers intended. Remember that the members of the Senate were originally appointed by state legislatures. This was to make the Senate a body to address state concerns equally. Hence Madison says in Federalist 39, "The Senate… will derive its powers from the states as political and coequal societies." This phrasing is interesting, recognizing the states as distinct political societies. The Senators, thus, were designed to represent the interests of these states, as opposed to the House of Representatives’s duty to represent the people as a whole. Senators were sent to Washington to advocate states and state issues.

Of course, due to corruption in the various state legislatures, the Constitution was amended, and Senators were then elected by popular vote. While Senators today still advocate states, they have become higher-class versions of representatives from the House. Senators like Ted Kennedy can perhaps go weeks without mentioning Massachusetts in a floor speech. The unfortunate effect of popular election of Senators is the decline of state politics in Washington.

Considering this, Senator Akaka may be the perfect Senator. Hawaii is a small state, for it has only four electoral votes in presidential elections. Most Americans hardly ever think Hawaii has much impact in national affairs; they think of Hawaii as America’s own tropical getaway. Senator Akaka may be a throwback, but his advocacy for Hawaii makes a difference on a national scale. The Senate was designed to make sure smaller states were not out-manned in the legislature by larger states. Senator Akaka ensures that for Hawaii. In a day where Senate state advocacy means how much pork can a senator get for his state, Senator Daniel Akaka stands as a man whose principle in politics empowers a state with little political power.

So next time you see a quorum call on C-SPAN2, listen for whose name is called first. Deservingly, it will be Senator Daniel Akaka’s. Deserving not because his name is first alphabetically, but because Senator Akaka stands for what a United States Senator should be.

Dan Tierney is a junior from Cortland, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism and Electronic Media Production.

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