Compromise on civil rights panel leaves administration with a bitter aftertaste

The issue of civil rights continues to nag the Reagan administration. In the past, White House civil rights policies have at times seemed to many to be ill-planned and heavy-handed. The President's support of tax exemptions for segregated private schools, for instance, infuriated many minority groups.

Now, in the latest development on the subject, a White House attempt to quiet the United States Commission on Civil Rights has been outflanked by Congress.

"It's a clear-cut victory for the civil rights community," gloats Arthur Flemming, who was chairman of the commission until fired by Reagan in 1981.

The Civil Rights Commission, first founded as a temporary agency in 1957, is the official critic of the nation's civil rights performance. It investigates trends, issues reports, and recommends ameliorative actions.

A majority of its current members disagree with the administration's opposition to busing and affirmative action. Over the last three years, the commission has issued a number of reports lambasting these and other White House rights policies.

Last spring the administration launched a strike intended to neutralize this hotbed of opposition. Mr. Reagan announced he was firing the three most liberal commissioners, and appointing in their place three veterans of the civil rights wars who shared his distaste for affirmative-action quotas.

Since commissioners serve at the pleasure of the President, the White House claimed the action was clearly legal. But critics claimed Congress intended the civil rights panel to be an independent watchdog, and that the firings subverted this purpose. (On Monday, a federal judge agreed with the administration's critics, and issued a temporary injunction barring the firings.)

A standoff developed, with the commission's fate hanging in the balance, since its authorization expired in early fall. But the standoff was broken last week when it became clear the Republican-controlled Senate was prepared to defy the President over the issue.

Fifty-three senators cosponsored legislation to change the Civil Rights Commission from an executive to a legislative agency. Though it would have taken time, Congress could have passed such a measure in a way that would make it veto-proof. The White House, in a last-minute compromise, salvaged what it could from the situation.

Under a compromise that passed the Senate Monday, Reagan will be allowed to seat two of the three new commissioners he nominated last spring.

But two of the liberal panel members he sought to oust will stay. The commission will simply be expanded, from six to eight members.

Senate sources say this means the panel's criticism of Reagan policies will be leess strident, with more commissioners voting on the President's side.

Chairman Clearence Pendleton, a Reagan appointee, "will finally have allies," says one Senate aide.

But rights leaders say the White House can't count on a majority of five to support its actions, particularly with regard to the contenious busing and quota issues.

The panel "will be just as hard-hitting as it has been over the last two years," claims the former chairman, Dr. Flemming.

The real loss to the White House in the compromise, however, is the fact that the Civil Rights Commission is no longer an executive-branch agency. Half the commissioners will still be appointed by the President -- but the other half will now be named by congressional leaders. And no commissioner can be fired except for dereliction of duty.

If the House passes the compromise, as expected, the Civil Rights Commission will be changed into a quasi-legislative, quasi-executive body, fenced off once and for all from White House control.

Some legislators charge that the doctrine of separation of powers means such a hybrid panel would be unconstitutional.

But an aide to Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, a coauthor of the compromise, claims the law establishing the new commission has been drawn up carefully enought to avoid that problem.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.