Washington -- Where, oh, where is President Clinton going to go with affirmative action?
A new policy recommendation from the Federal Communications Commission offers some important clues.
The FCC and the president are in a similar quandary. Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and other leading Republican presidential candidates say they oppose affirmative-action policies. Californians are passing petitions to put an anti-affirmative-action referendum on that state's ballot next year, much to the delight of Republicans who hope it will bring lots of anti-Clinton voters to the polls. That leaves Mr. Clinton in a crack. If he turns one way, he offends old Democratic party friends among blacks and women. If he turns the other way, he risks antagonizing angry white males.
The FCC is is concerned with meeting its long-standing mission to level the playing field for minorities and women who are trying to compete for broadcast licenses and other licenses to profit from new technologies. An important aspect of this policy was jeopardized by the new Republican Congress in January. The House voted to repeal retroactively a tax break designed to encourage minority ownership of media properties.
By making the measure retroactive to January 17, the measure would kill a tax break for Viacom, Inc., that is critical to the media concern's proposed $2.3 billion sale of its cable-television operations. Under the program, it would receive a tax break of $400 million to $600 million because the partnership to which it is selling is led by a black executive, Frank Washington. Mr. Washington's deal is only the latest of a series of deals that have made him a millionaire, thanks to a minority tax break that he helped to write while he was consulting former President Carter's White House staff in 1977, and helped to implement later while working at the FCC.
Critics charge that the program enriches big, predominantly white corporations like Viacom, makes millionaires of minorities and women who need help the least and allows the minorities to ''flip,'' or sell off their holdings at great profit to the highest bidder, minority or not, after only a year.
Defenders of the program, of which I am one, argue that only dreamers think that a female or a minority-headed firm has an equal chance of raising capital in the marketplace as a white-male-headed firm of similar size. Even conservative Supreme Courts have tended to agree that there is great social virtue in such diversity in light of America's racial history and continuing institutional discrimination.
The question, then, should be how can we make the program live up to its promise?
William E. Kennard, FCC general counsel, presented a thoughtful answer to that question during Tuesday's Senate Finance Committee hearings on the future of the Viacom tax break. He proposed several principles to promote what he called ''affirmative opportunity'' in the information age.
First, all ''disadvantaged businesses'' deserve an opportunity to participate, whether owned by men or women, whites or minorities. Since ''small businesses owned by minorities and women face unique obstacles'' that warrant unique opportunities, ''benefits should be based on need.''
Second, ''no quotas, no guarantees, and no taking from one to give to another.'' No set number of licenses or other benefits will be reserved for any particular group. No attempt will be made to guarantee success, only to ensure fair opportunity to compete.
To avoid the ''flipping'' of FCC licenses for quick profit, Mr. Kennard suggested extending the current one-year minimum to
as much as five years, the average time stations acquired through past tax certificates have been held. He also would put limits on the number of times an applicant could use the tax break.
Since the FCC is technically an independent agency, it did not have to show its policy recommendations to the White House for review. But President Clinton's new affirmative-action review committee, headed by Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and including Deputy Atty. Gen. for Civil Rights Deval Patrick, should take a good look at the proposal.
It does what most Americans say in polls that they want to do: level the playing field for everyone, based on need, not just race or gender.
Of course, some Americans don't want to give women or minorities any breaks at all. Others would judge need by race and gender and nothing else.
But most of us dwell somewhere in the middle. We know racial and sex discrimination still exist, but we also know they are not the only impediments to advancement in today's economy.
Polls show most Americans support affirmative action as long as it does not include quotas. That tells me the president does not need to call for either quotas or ''color-blindness.'' He only has to call for fairness.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.