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Taming the civil rights commission.

About a year and a half ago, there was a brief time when it looked as if the Reagan Administration's bid to take over the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights would fail. After President Reagan fired commissioner Blandina Ramirez and me in October 1983, a Federal court ordered our reinstatement on the ground that the commission is an independent government agency and not subject to Presidential control. But one month later, after considerable maneuvering, the Administration succeeded in gaining a majority on the commission. Since then, the Reagan commissioners have followed a radically different course from that of their predecessors.

From its founding, in 1957, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commission had been made up of distinguished men and women who were dedicated to advancing the cause of civil rights rather than the interests of a particular politician or ideology. Most of them served for many years, under several Presidents. When they criticized government policies or agencies, no one tried to fire them. President Reagan's attack on sitting commissioners represented a break with that tradition, as did his appointment of new commissioners who share his goal of weakening existing civil rights remedies.

The majory work in transforming the commission has been done by staff director Linda Chavez and chair Clarence Pendleton Jr. (who likes to insist that the President is color-blind, although the White House announcement of his appointment referred to him as the first black to head the commission). They have been assisted by John Bunzel and Morris Abram. Ester Gonzales-Arroyo Buckley and Robert Destro have been largely taken for granted by the others, who count on them to go along with whatever they propose. Francis Guess at first seemed to be an Administration rubber stamp, although he has since become increasingly assertive.

By law the commission must study and collect information, investigate allegations of discrimination and evaluate government laws and policies. Since last January it has contradicted its own procedures, issued statements before it investigates the facts, muzzled its state advisory committees to prevent them from announcing unacceptable conclusions and sidestepped experienced Civil Service staff members.

The commission has for the most part abandoned its responsibility to monitor the activities of the civil rights enforcement agencies of the Federal government. Not one report or statement about any Federal body has been issued since the takeover. Indeed, the commission has become so much a public relations operation for the Administration that it s members have been referred to in the media as "Administration spokespersons." At the commission's first meeting last year, the new majority quickly issued a statement chastising the Supreme Court for upholding a lower court's decision in Bratton v. City of Detroit. Citing a voluminous trial record that proved the city's Police Department had been biased in its hiring and promotion policies, the lower court had ordered the department to set quotas for the promotion of qualified black and white police officers on a one-to-one basis. The commission's statement was consistent with the Administration's opposition to affirmative action quotas. (Administration officials had falsely characterized the issue of quotas as the basis of the dispute with the previous commissioners.)

When the Supreme Court held in Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts that seniority prevails over some affirmative action remedies, the commission quickly praised the decision as the death knell for group-victimization theories and affirmative action goals. Its statement, like the one on the detroit case, was issued before the commission had investigated the factual context of the case. Contrary to the commission's characterization, however, courts of appeal have since interpreted the Stotts decision narrowly, leaving most affirmative action remedies in place.

Other violations of commission procedures have occurred in the service of more blatantly political aims. For example, Abram told the White House that I had suggested the commission discuss the President's reluctance to repudiate an endorsement of his re-election bid by Bill Wilkinson, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. During a break in the next meeting, Abram produced a letter from the President repudiating the Klan but not Wilkinson. Then, without commission approval, Abram called a press conference to announce the letter. In another departure from procedure, and without the other commissioners' approval or a preliminary investigation by the staff, Pendleton asked the Democratic Presidential candidates what they thought about remarks allegedly made by Louis Farrakhan and how they thought Jess Jackson should respond. Although I had stated publicly that Jackson should repudiate Farrakhan if the statements had been made, I argued that the commission should avoid injecting itself into a partisan political controversy before we had ascertained the facts. Pendleton and his cohorts agreed to take on further action after it seemed Guess and Destro would join Ramirez and me in formally reprimanding them for flouting the rules. But during the Presidential race, issuing pronouncements without consutling the other commissioners became a habit with Pendleton. Taking sides in an intra-Administration fight, he publicly criticized the President for supporting the practice of awarding a set percentage of Federal contracts to minority businesses and for convening a meeting of blacks he had appointed to government jobs.

In still another departure from policy, the majority voted to require state advisory committees (composed of citizens appointed by the commission who serve without pay to monitor civil rights problems in their states) to submit their reports to Washington for review prior to their release. The reason given was that the reports had been uneven and had ranged too far afield. Actually, the majority was unhappy with the state bodies because they had continued to work on issues of which it disapproved, such as equal opportunity budgets.

Blandinaa Ramirez and I find the majority's refusal to undertake the required hearings and investigations before issuing statements abhorrent, but our protests have gone unheeded. After the Supreme Court's decision in Grove City College v. Bell, which narrowed the scope of the language in Title IX of the Civil rights Act prohibiting sex discrimination in education, we suggested that the commission issue a statement calling on Congress to pass a law nullifying the decision's impact. Such a statement could draw on data compiled by the commission staff in the last five years. The majority opposed such a statement. They supported new legislation but said it should include language opposing certain affirmative action remedies and adding a requirement that intent to discriminate be proved.

Staff director Chavez, who has no policy-making powers under the law, has also spoken out publicly on policy matters. After the

House passed the Civil rights Act of 1984, she provided a detailed analysis of the bill's shortcomings to anti-civil-rights senators and to the media. When Representative Don Edwards accused her of suggesting crippling amendments to the opposition, Chavez asserted that she had only responded to the senators' requests for technical assistance, in keeping with the commissionhs past procedures. When Pendleton was queried about Chavez's actions at a commission meeting, he said he approved of everything she had done.

There was more to come. Without consulting the other commissioners, Pendleton canceled our November meeting and held press conference instead. He and Chavez used the occasion to denounce the idea of equal pay for similar jobs, or comparable worth, an issue much in the news at the time because of the clerical workers' strike at Yale University [see editorial, "Women of Yale," The Nation, December 1, 1984]. Pendleton called it the "looniest idea since Looney Tunes." Back in January, Abram had already announced his opposition to comparable worth at a commission press conference. In effect, those statements prejudged the issue, meaning that any future commission findings regarding comparable worth will have little credibility.

That press conference followed a widely publicized speech in which Pendleton had attacked black voters and certain black leaders for not supporting Reagan in the election. Even two from the usual majority couldn't stomach that one. The planned to raise the issue of violations of procedure at the commission's December meeting, but the chair canceled it.

I see little possibility that the commission will act any more independently in the near future than it has up to now. The majority and the staff director can be expected to say whatever is politically expedient. They have commissioned studies by consultants who have previously expressed views consistent with White House policy on civil rights. Instead of producing reports that will command broad respect from Congress and the public, they can be expected to support the Administration's retreat on civil rights protections.

The Commission on Civil Rights has become a parody of its former self, politicized institution for the first time in its history. Contrary to Administration claims, the Reaganites' takeover of the commission did not stem from a battle about busing org or quotas. Rather, they could not tolerate the commission's challenge on a number of points: the tax exemption for Bob Jones University, the White House's unprecedented refusal to supply information to the commission except under threat of subpoena, its opposition to extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982, its attempts to lessen the protection against sex discrimination in education under Title IX and the removal of some remedies for victims of job discrimination. Unitl the majority of Amercians are ready to take up the unfinished business of providing equality of opportunity in this society, the commission is unlikely to contribute to any further progress in civil rights.
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Title Annotation:Reagan's politicization of the commission
Author:Berry, Mary Frances
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 2, 1985
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