Half-Loaf on Civil Rights

January 11, 1991

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called the 101st Congress "one of the best and most successful civil rights Congresses in our history." That assessment came despite its failure to enact the group's No. 1 priority, the Civil Rights Act of 1990. Congress passed it, but President Bush vetoed it, and the Senate failed to override the veto by one vote.

Among the successes were the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, a child care bill, an older workers protection act, the reauthorization of the Civil Rights Commission and a minimum wage increase.

The big failure could be overcome in the current Congress -- if the civil rights community will get behind some compromise version of the 1990 act that is not likely to be vetoed. The main goal of the 1990 act was to reverse recent Supreme Court decisions overturning a key 1971 court ruling on employment practices. Among several civil rights bills likely to be introduced this year will be at least one, with a Republican author, writing into law the language of the 1971 court decision. The president couldn't in good faith oppose that.

Yet there are no signs that core civil rights advocates are interested in compromise. Democrats have re-introduced the old bill. What a waste of time and resources. The same fate awaits such a bill in 1991-1992 that befell it in 1990.

The civil rights side gained nothing and learned nothing in the 1990 elections. The only senator who lost voted to override Mr. Bush's veto. He attributed his loss in part to that vote. There were several other Republicans who voted to override only after it was clear the battle was lost. The House didn't take an override vote. But it passed the bill by 12 less votes than needed for an override. Of 14 House incumbents who lost in November, seven voted for the bill and seven against. This bill cannot become law in the next Congress.

Those in the civil rights community who are more interested in improving the employment opportunities of minorities and women than they are in having an issue should seek the biggest half-loaf they can get from the 102nd Congress. It's either that, or nothing.

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