Bush's `Quota' Politics

THIS week the House of Representatives will vote on the 1991 version of the civil rights bill President Bush vetoed last year. The bill seeks to reverse the effects of five Supreme Court decisions in 1989 making it more difficult for minorities and women to challenge discrimination in the work place. But politics has flipped the issue on its head. If the bill originated to fight exclusionary employment practices, a traditional civil rights issue, it has turned into a focal point for the national debate over those inclusionary employment practices known as affirmative action - race- or gender-based preferential policies that some critics call ``reverse discrimination.''

The Bush administration and business groups have labeled the legislation a ``quota bill.'' They contend that employers, to avoid costly lawsuits over unintentional disparities in workforce composition, will resort to hiring and promoting by the numbers, i.e., on the basis of predetermined quotas of minorities and women.

Congressional Democrats have tried to make the bill veto proof by adding a section that expressly prohibits quotas. Yet the proviso raises questions of its own. It would keep an employer from establishing as a hiring goal only ``a fixed number or percentage of persons of a particular race, color, religion, sex or national origin'' that requires the hiring of unqualified workers. By implication, the bill would permit quotas that prefer certain less-qualified workers over more-qualified ones, as long as a ll applicants meet minimum performance-related standards. Is that fair?

Recognizing its flaws (including a cap on damages women can recover in job-discrimination suits), we nevertheless favor adoption of the civil rights bill. It remedies a wide range of work-bias injustices. The debate over ``quotas'' is a political sideshow. Opponents have not proved convincingly that the bill would result in employment quotas, and the American legal and political systems are able to make equitable adjustments as required. In an ideal America, race- or sex-conscious remedies to past discr imination wouldn't be necessary. We are not there yet. Affirmative action is still needed in the work place.

The administration is playing dangerous and polarizing politics with the bill. Its misgivings are not unfounded, but it's not clear that the White House truly wants them resolved. President Bush may be angling to preserve ``quotas'' as the Willie Horton of the 1992 campaign. If so, that's bad-faith politics.

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