Senate grabs civil rights spotlight

The Reagan administration's civil rights policy was up for debate in the Senate on Wednesday - and a lot of senators had a lot to say. At the Judiciary Committee's hearings on the President's latest batch of Civil Rights Commission nominees, senatorial ''opening statements'' went on for 1 hour and 45 minutes.

''We're grateful for the statements,'' said acting chairman Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah, when the last of his colleagues had finished.

It has been a big week for civil rights developments, and few senators passed up the opportunity to comment at length, in front of TV cameras.

On the ostensible issue at hand - the qualifications of the three Civil Rights Commission nominees - there was little disagreement. Republicans, Democrats, and civil rights organization representatives all agreed that Morris Abram, a New York lawyer; Robert Destro, a Catholic University professor; and John Bunzel, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, have distinguished themselves fighting for civil rights.

But there were sharp disputes over whether President Reagan should have made the nominations at all.

The US Commission on Civil Rights, established by Congress in 1957, is charged with analyzing and reporting on the state of civil rights in America. It is one of those agencies which operate in a gray area: not quite under White House control since part of its job is to evaluate administration civil rights efforts, yet not quite independent, since its commissioners can be hired and fired by the President at will.

And the current commission has made a habit of snapping at President Reagan's heels. Last year, it issued a report criticizing the administration's opposition to affirmative-action programs. This spring it complained the White House wasn't giving it the information it needed to do its job. Yesterday, it released a study complaining that Reagan budget cuts in education programs hit minority groups the hardest.

For the most part, former presidents have just grumbled when criticized by the six-member Civil Rights Commission. Reagan, by trying to replace three commissioners after already naming two others last year, is the first to try a wholesale reshaping of the panel.

''The administration is attempting to silence the messenger, because it doesn't like the message it is receiving,'' says Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio, a Judiciary Committee member.

A number of Democrats on the committee, including Sens. Metzenbaum and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, say they'll vote against the commission nominees, even though the men are clearly qualified, because they believe the administration is compromising the Civil Rights Commission's independence. Undoubtedly, say the Democrats, the proposed commissioners will be confirmed anyway.

Administration officials reply that it is clearly within the President's legal rights to fire and hire commissioners. And the real power in the area of civil rights, they say, lies not with the advisory commission, but with the Justice Department and other federal departments. And this week these executive-branch agencies have been cracking the whip on civil rights offenders.

On Monday, Justice filed its first school desegregation suit, charging that Alabama's public institutions of higher education have maintained a consistent pattern of segregation. On Tuesday, the White House sent legislation to Congress that would put teeth in enforcement procedures of the Fair Housing Act.

The timing of these actions was propitious, but William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, denies that the administration is trying to improve its civil rights image as the symbolic debate over the rights panel nominees heats up.

''If anybody looks at the record, I am sure they will have complete confidence that civil rights statutes are being enforced,'' Mr. Reynolds says.

Reynolds, at a White House briefing, ticked off a number of accomplishments: In 1982, the Justice Department filed more criminal civil rights cases than had been filed any year previously. It has worked on more than 100 employment discrimination suits. More than 60 housing discrimination investigations have been conducted. Two more school desegregations suits have been authorized, but not yet announced.

''Yes, they'll handle individual cases of discrimination,'' says Arthur S. Flemming, the former head of the Civil Rights Commission who was ousted last year by Reagan. ''But they're not interested in policies designed to prevent segregation,'' such as affirmative-action programs, he says.

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