White House halts set-asides for minority contractors Return of programs termed doubtful after moratorium

other preferences allowed

March 08, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- After a long review of affirmative action, the Clinton administration has decided to suspend -- for at least three years -- all federal programs that reserve some contracts exclusively for minority and women-owned companies, officials said yesterday.

The officials said the three-year moratorium on set-aside programs, which have proved to be the most hotly debated type of affirmative action, would include such stringent conditions for reintroducing the programs that it was doubtful they would ever return.

"As a practical matter, set-asides are gone," a senior administration official said, speaking only after being promised anonymity.

At the same time, the administration has decided to allow federal agencies, if they can justify it, to use other kinds of preferences, such as giving price breaks and extra points in evaluating contract bids by minority firms and companies headed by women.

Officials said it was not clear how great a practical effect the moratorium would have, because the number of set-aside programs had been dwindling already. But in political and legal terms, the new guidelines represent the administration's attempt steer a middle course on an issue Republicans seized on after their landslide victory in 1994.

The administration's decision to maintain some preferences puts on a collision course with some Republicans -- including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the front-runner in the GOP race to become President Clinton's opponent in November -- who are moving legislation through Congress that would ban such practices.

The bill sponsored by Mr. Dole in the Senate and Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida in the House was approved yesterday by the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee by 8-5 vote.

In addition to the debate in Washington, a proposal on California's ballot in November to halt virtually all affirmative action programs in that politically crucial state means that the question of race-based contracting, employment and educational programs will likely be a major issue in the fall election.

In jettisoning set-asides, the administration ends the type of affirmative action programs that officials say are most difficult to defend and most resemble quotas, which Mr. Clinton has said he opposes.

Meanwhile, the administration is preserving some preference programs, though it is setting tougher criteria for their use and requiring federal agencies to first try race-neutral means, such as increased recruitment, to increase the number of minority contractors.

The alteration of procurement regulations is the latest in a series of changes in the government's affirmative action programs that stemmed from Mr. Clinton's promise in July to "mend, not end," race- and sex-based remedial efforts.

The president ordered the review to determine whether federal affirmative action programs are effective and whether they comply with last June's Supreme Court decision in Adarand Constructors v. Pena, which set strict limits on when and how federal agencies may grant preferences to minority and female contractors.

TC Pub Date: 3/08/96

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