Executive order could radically alter minority-hiring programs

The debate within the Reagan administration over affirmative-action policies is expected to pick up this week as key players return to Washington. The proposed executive order would outlaw the use of numerical goals and timetables by federal contractors in their affirmative-action minority hiring programs. It would also forbid the government from using hiring statistics to prove that a federal contractor had discriminated against blacks, Hispanics, or women.

Critics view the draft executive order as placing the Reagan administration further than ever into hard-line opposition against numerical goals and quotas.

If approved, the order would significantly reduce the power the Labor Department currently has in enforcing United States anti-discrimination laws among some 15,000 federal contractors employing 23 million workers.

Labor Secretary William E. Brock III has not yet commented on the proposed order and an aide says he will be studying the issue this week. The labor secretary has taken a less belligerent tone in his public remarks about affirmative action, fueling speculation of a split within the administration on the issue.

Some civil-rights experts have said the proposed order would make it almost impossible for the federal government to prosecute biggoted contractors. ``It would strip everything of value out of the enforcement program,'' says Richard T. Seymour, director of the employment discrimination project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

He adds that, under the proposed executive order, the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance would only be empowered to pursue ``very unusual cases in which there is direct proof of intentional discrimination,'' such as a federal contractor posting a sign saying: ``Blacks Shouldn't Apply'' or ``Men Only.'' Less obvious cases would be more difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute, Mr. Seymour says.

The proposed order, backed by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Michael Horowitz of the Office of Management and Budget, goes further than measures advocated by Justice Department Civil Rights chief William Bradford Reynolds.

In effect, it would outlaw numerical goals even in minority recruiting programs. Mr. Reynolds in the past has said that even though the Reagan administration opposes numerical goals in minority hiring and promotion plans, it does not oppose the use of goals in recruiting programs as long as such programs don't discriminate against whites.

Reynolds has traditionally been the administration's point man on affirmative-action issues, making frequent public appearances to present and clarify the administration's view.

The draft executive order is consistent with the philosophy of President Reagan, who opposes numerical goals because he believes such programs degenerate into strict quotas that discriminate against nonminorities. The President advocates a ``colorblind'' approach to minority hiring and promotion, based on an individual's qualifications and performance.

Despite this, it is uncertain whether the President will sign the draft order. In addition to angering much of the civil-rights community and moderates in the administration, the potential controversy could prove disruptive to Reagan's fall legislative agenda in Congress.

Administration officials maintain that the draft proposal is only one of several plans under consideration. The matter is expected to be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the White House's Domestic Policy Council, which Mr. Meese chairs.

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