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Clinton Study Backs Affirmative Action

By Ann Devroy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 1995; Page A01

The Clinton administration's five-month review of government affirmative action programs concludes that the vast majority of them should continue but that significant reforms may be needed in the way federal contracts are set aside for minorities.

The 96-page review, which forms the basis for a speech the president will deliver today, is in most respects a defense of federal affirmative action initiatives. Its central argument is that there is little evidence to back up Republican assertions that whites are being broadly discriminated against and minorities unfairly rewarded in government employment and the way contracts and other benefits are awarded.

All of the Republican presidential candidates have been sharply critical of race-based affirmative action programs, arguing the government ought to be colorblind. But some in the party have expressed concerns that the GOP needs to offer a positive alternative or it will appear insensitive to the history of discrimination against minorities and women.

White House officials, who gave a copy of the report to The Washington Post yesterday, cited as its central conclusion about government affirmative action: "The evidence shows that, on the whole, the federal programs are fair and do not unduly burden nonbeneficiaries. Finally, we conclude that some reforms would make the programs work better and guarantee their fairness."

Even before the review's release, the White House engaged in an intensive effort to reassure loyal Democratic constituencies that President Clinton would not abandon his career-long support of affirmative action in the face of Republican attacks, political anger on the part of white men and dwindling public support. Clinton yesterday called civil rights leader and potential presidential opponent Jesse L. Jackson to brief him on the report and try to enlist his support, and several other leaders of civil rights groups were asked to issue helpful public statements today.

When he ordered the review, Clinton expressed doubts about whether some of the programs were needed and whether criteria other than race ought to be used. The report does not recommend abolishing any program, although a presidential executive order to be issued today will direct agencies to eliminate race-based programs unless they can be shown to be narrowly constructed to meet a "compelling government interest." A recent Supreme Court decision made the continuation of race-based programs more difficult.

The review focuses on how these programs can be reformed to eliminate abuse. White House officials argue that making specific reforms will help ensure that Republicans have fewer indefensible cases to use as political fodder.

But the review does not propose replacing race or gender with economic disadvantage as a criterion for set-asides, as Clinton once suggested as a possible compromise. "As a practical matter, some degree of explicit targeting is the only effective way to ensure that . . . opportunities are open to minorities and women. The question is how best to minimize abuse" of the programs, the review states.

The largest such programs are set-aside programs for minority businesses overseen by the Small Business Administration and those run separately by the departments of Defense and Transportation. In the latter, some contracts are set aside for minorities or minority firms are given a bid preference, in which a percentage added on to the bid of non-minority businesses puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

The review found the programs have been successful in meeting the government's goal of increasing the percentage of minorities and women receiving federal contracts, but also noted several problems. Among them were a tendency for agencies trying to reach overall diversity goals to concentrate the contracts set aside for minorities in certain fields, such as construction. Thus, in some regions, non-minority firms in those fields have little chance of competing for the contracts.

The major SBA program, the so-called 8(a) program, now requires minority firms to expand their business beyond federal contracts within nine years. The review calls for the Defense and Transportation departments to adopt such "graduations" in their set-aside programs.

Defense, in addition, allows firms to assert on their own that they are minority-owned. That, the review asserts, is susceptible to abuse, and cases are cited of firms falsely representing themselves to be owned by blacks or Hispanics, or of front companies for large non-minority companies concealing their ownership structure.

The review suggests that recent audits of the 8(a) contracts show some recipients are disguising their net worth and that the law setting up the program needs to be changed to require fuller reporting.

Overall, the review says, an interagency group should come up with ways to tighten the test of who is economically disadvantaged, develop new standards for when any individual firm no longer needs special help in receiving government work, establish more stringent safeguards against front firms, and establish measures to reduce concentrating set-asides in certain business fields.

The review provides a strong defense of the original executive order issued by Lyndon B. Johnson, and continued by every president since, on which most affirmative actions programs are based. That order, a major target for many Republicans, asserts that those who get government business must make a good faith effort to reach goals of minority and female participation in their firms.

The review also calls on Vice President Gore to find a way to expand government set-aside programs to firms located in economically disadvantaged areas, regardless of the race or gender of its owners.

Clinton's new executive order calls for eliminating programs that create quotas, allow preferences for unqualified individuals, result in reverse discrimination or continue indefinitely.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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