WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's top civil rights official told a Senate panel Tuesday that the Justice Department has substantially increased its anti-discrimination enforcement activities over the past 15 months.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, a former member of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's Cabinet, said the administration has made progress in attacking a growing number of discriminatory practices but much work remains.
"I wish I could be that Maytag repairman, waiting for the phone to ring, but regrettably we continue to be the Toyota mechanic," Perez said at a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.
As he has repeatedly indicated since taking office six months ago, Perez said his top goals are restoring public confidence and depoliticizing decision-making at the civil rights division, a source of controversy during much of the administration of President George W. Bush.
He said that leading enforcement targets under President Barack Obama include mortgage-lending and apartment-rental practices that discriminate against blacks and Hispanics, hate-crimes prosecutions and re-segregation of public education. Employment discrimination cases, which declined under Bush, are up, as are lawsuits alleging bias in hiring decisions involving returning servicemen and women, Perez said.
Recently, the federal government intervened for the first time in a decade in a case involving anti-gay discrimination in education. The incident, in Mohawk County, N.Y., involved the bullying of a 14-year-old male by classmates.
"Today's bullies are tomorrow's civil rights defendants," Perez said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the committee, suggested that Perez was imposing a liberal agenda under Obama, the flip side of a charge made against the Justice Department under Bush.
"I'm concerned that this new culture may be producing some harmful results," said Sessions, raising several long-standing Republican complaints, including the Justice Department's handling of a voter intimidation accusation involving members of the New Black Panther Party at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008.
The senator warned Perez not to evade the government's responsibility to require states to purge their rolls of dead or duplicate voters. Sessions alluded to a recent National Review Online article by a former Bush appointee at the Justice Department reporting that a Perez deputy told subordinates the administration had no intention of enforcing those provisions.
Perez said he was unfamiliar with the report and promised to give Sessions the written guidance that the Justice Department will soon provide states on complying with the voter law.
Alluding to Republican complaints of voter fraud, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said studies have shown that the number of people who vote fraudulently is "miniscule" compared with the number who are eligible to vote but are improperly prevented from doing so for a variety of reasons.
Cardin, who chaired the hearing, told Perez that the Justice Department should "not try to spend a lot of effort with a problem that really does not exist" or exists in only "a minor way."