Bush to void hiring rules based on race Expected today, move would reverse policies from 1965

November 21, 1991|By Steven A. Holmes | Steven A. Holmes,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is expected to direct all federal agencies today to phase out regulations authorizing the use of racial preferences and quotas in hiring and promotions when he signs the recently passed civil rights bill. The regulations affect all companies as well as federal agencies.

A senior administration official said yesterday evening that the president's action, which is spelled out in a statement prepared for release today, is intended to underscore his continuing opposition to affirmative action programs that give "unfair preferences" to minorities or women.

The action, which reverses federal regulatory policies that date from 1965, comes as he signs a bill in which he seemed to have compromised with Congress on the issue.

According to a copy of the statement, the president is directing all federal agencies to review their rules, regulations and guidelines involving employment discrimination.

A copy of the statement was provided by someone outside the government who asked not to be identified. Its authenticity was later confirmed by administration officials. By early evening, after being asked about the statement, the White House said the document was still subject to revision.

Judy Smith, a deputy press secretary at the White House, said the written statement "is now being reviewed by relevant federal agencies."

"The president supports affirmative action and full compliance with the civil rights laws," Ms. Smith said.

The statement says that "any regulation, rule, enforcement practice or other aspects of these programs that mandates, encourages or otherwise involves the use of quotas, preferences, set-asides" or other devices on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin are "to be terminated as soon as is legally feasible."

The Reagan administration largely failed in its campaign to eradicate affirmative action programs using numerical goals for the hiring and promotion of women and members of minority groups. But it caused much uncertainty among some employers and employees about the legality of such programs.

Government and civil rights lawyers said last night that the president's action could have profound implications for the future of affirmative action programs operated by the government and private employers. Such programs are common the workplace, but no exact count was immediately available.

In addition, the president's action and other comments in his signing statement seem likely to reopen debates on affirmative action for federal contractors. Such debates about setting numerical goals for the employment of minorities by federal contractors caused bitter fights in the Reagan administration.

Mr. Bush's move is the latest round in the political and substantive battle over the use of affirmative action programs that give job applicants preference on the basis of race or sex.

Mr. Bush opposed the civil rights bill for more than 20 months, saying it would force employers to adopt numerical quotas to avoid lawsuits. But the White House announced Oct. 24 that it had reached a compromise with sponsors of the measure, disappointing Republican conservatives.

Now Mr. Bush seems to be trying to accomplish with executive action what the administration failed to do in legislation.

Aware of how the president's statement might be viewed, the White House had already prepared a response arguing that the cancellations Mr. Bush will order were an attempt to bring government policy in line with the new law.

"It's not a quota bill, and this is intended to show that," a senior administration official said of the civil rights bill. "It's not a prohibition of affirmative action. It's a prohibition of quotas. The president wanted to make clear that he was really sincere when he said he would not sign a quota bill."

But experts in job discrimination law say the effect of Mr. Bush's directive will be to halt race and sexual preference programs.

They say the directive will affect affirmative action guidelines enforced by the Federal Office of Contract Compliance. The office, a unit of the Department of Labor that monitors more than 250,000 businesses with about 40 million employees, requires that any federal contractor have an affirmative action program.

Under the program, government contractors must strive to hire and promote blacks, women and Hispanics in rough proportion to the numbers of available, qualified candidates in a given labor market.

Mr. Bush's directive also would cover what are known as the Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection, enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The guidelines are used to detect patterns of job discrimination against blacks, women and Hispanics.

The guidelines, issued in 1978, apply to all public and private employers with 15 or more workers.

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