Interpreting the Civil Rights Act

November 29, 1991

A recent White House ceremony that should have been as joyous as a wedding turned out to be a somber as a funeral. The occasion was the signing of the 1991 Civil Rights Act. Passage of the bill by lopsided margins in the House and Senate culminated a two-year effort. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., displayed great patience, tenacity and willingness to compromise to work out the final version. President Bush also agreed to give a little to get a little.

But on the day before the ceremony, the White House staff sent out a "signing statement" to cabinet members and other administration executives in which the preposterous and, frankly, mean-spirited, too-clever-by-half orders were given that the bill "requires that Executive branch agencies immediately terminate all regulations, rules and programs of whatever nature that may be inconsistent with the new law or with the principle of discouraging quotas and unfair preferences."

Note the "may" and the "or." Had the president read this signing statement, given its overall context, it would have intimidated government officials from continuing 25-year-old practices that have been approved over and over again by previous presidents, courts, regulatory officials and Congress, and which the present Congress expected to continue under the new law.

It was a deliberately false move. And it was dishonorably prepared. The signing document instructed executive branch personnel to interpret the new law in accordance with an analysis of its legal technicalities entered into the Congressional Record by Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., on behalf of the White House legal staff. In fact, the real legislative history of the new law and its "exclusive" meaning were contained in a statement entered into the Record by Senators Danforth and Kennedy, the bill's bi-partisan floor managers. The White House staff knew this was the case but decided to re-write history.

President Bush, to his credit, ignored the phony signing statement and said, upon signing the bill, that he believed in affirmative action and certain traditional forms of racial preference in particular situations. We hope in private he reprimanded those responsible for the original statement as forcefully as in public he repudiated its meaning.

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