WASHINGTON — THERE IS something particularly demeaning about the way Republicans and Democrats are dealing with the new civil rights bill aimed at countering Supreme Court decisions that have made it harder for workers to bring and win suits charging discrimination in the workplace.
This is especially so when you recall that some of Congress' finest moments of this century came in the 1950s and 1960s when civil rights legislation was instrumental in removing or reducing the single most odious social blot on the national image. The fights over such legislation were intense and impassioned but they were heartfelt on both sides, no matter how wrong-headed the positions taken by those who sought to cling to racial segregation. In the end, the legislation changed the face of America for much the better.
By contrast, the argument over whether the current civil rights bill before Congress would impose hiring quotas -- the Democrats say no, the Republicans yes -- is being crassly shaped essentially as a major political battleground for the 1992 elections. The Democrats have insisted that their proposal does not dictate quotas, just as they did in last year's version that passed both House and Senate but was not veto-proof. The Bush White House and Republican allies in Congress have insisted just as strongly that the measure, if passed, would open the door to reverse discrimination.
In the current tense climate between the races, the Republican claim that the Democrats are focused on helping various special interests and racial minorities in particular at the expense of whites has the potential of great political profit. So the Republicans repeat ad nauseum that no matter what the Democrats say, their proposal is a "quotas bill," and President Bush will never sign it.
In an effort to trump this gambit, the Democrats have now inserted explicit language in the bill prohibiting use of hiring quotas -- which they also did, for all practical purposes last year, when their bill said that nothing in it "shall be construed to require or encourage quotas." This way, the Democrats reason, they can deprive the Republicans of using the bill as a scare tactic to woo white votes.
Don't bet the rent money, however, that the new Democratic language will keep the GOP from doing it anyway. The White House sees the issue as such a potential vote-getter that it scuttled recent negotiations between leading civil rights groups and the influential Business Roundtable whose members would be most directly affected by the proposed law.
The debate, much like the continuing argument over gun control, is being governed more by emotion than substance. Just as courts have already said that the Second Amendment does not guarantee an individual's "right to bear arms," they have ruled against strict, firm quotas in hiring of the sort businesses abhor.
But the Bush White House recognizes the political capital in vetoing a civil rights bill. Passage, the Republicans say, would force employers to establish racial or other quotas to prevent an endless stream of troublesome discrimination suits. Even if the Democrats are able to override a Bush veto this time -- they failed by a single vote in the Senate last year and by only 17 in the House -- the Republicans figure they will have a vote-getting issue for 1992.
The telling fact in all this is that civil rights has lost much of its luster as a moral cause in the country today. In the great civil-rights debates that led to the eradication or at least )R reduction of racial segregation in housing, education, voting, public transportation and other mainstays of American life, there developed eventually a public sense that the society was curing itself of an embarrassing and debilitating injustice and handicap.
Today, however, there is little of that. At stake now is the fine tuning of racial equality and equality of opportunity, a fine tuning that seems to go too far to many whites who are competing with racial minorities for jobs in the workplace. In the 1950s, whites in regions of racial segregation could not say, as many working-class whites say today, that they had never discriminated against anybody, so why should they have to bear the burden of compensating for past discrimination?
The civil rights fights of the past were bitter, but in the end uplifting. Now they seem to constitute endless sparring for political advantage, while remnants of discrimination remain to cast a shadow over the great strides made in that more edifying earlier time.