The Reagan administration is trying to make a joke out kof the U.S. Civil Rights Commission
This week, the president announced his intention to nominate to the commission one B. Sam Hart, an obscure, black radio evangelist, who promptly announced that he was against busing, ERA and homosexual rights. Overlooked in the initial publicity surrounding the announcement is a fact that makes this nomination even more of a travesty than it first appears: in order to create a Republican vacancy on the commission for Hart, the president sacked Jill Ruckelshaus, one of the leading feminists in the Republican party, and the wife of one of the most prominent figures in the Nixon administration.
The Civil Rights Commission was formed by Congress in 1957 as an independent, bipartisan monitoring unit of six citizens, including a chairman, who serve open-ended terms at the pleasure of the president. It holds hearings, issues subpeonas and makes reports to Congress and the president on progress in all areas of discrimination, including the government's role in enforcing civil rights. Over the years, it has been a powerful moral force in the nation's search for justice.
Commission chairman Arthur S. Flemming described it this way: "From the beginning, the commission has felt it has an obligation to stay out on the cutting edge of issues in the civil rights field and call the shots the way we see them and let the chips fall where they may." With the exception of Nixon's removal of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh in 1972, presidents have respected the commission's integrity and its tradition of independence. Commissioners have not changed with administrations.
The Reagan administration has no such lofty ideals. Last November, it announced it was replacing Flemming, a Republican who served as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Eisenhower administration and who was appointed chairman of the commission in 1974 by President Nixon. Reagan's choice for his successor is Clarence Pendleton, a conservative black Republican who has said he opposes busing and affirmative action. Reagan has also nominated Mary Louise Smith, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee who worked in Reagan's campaign, to replace Stephen Horn, president of California State University in Long Beach. Horn did not work for Reagan.
Flemming said that he was told he was being replaced in a telephone call from Mike Farrell, an aide to E. Pendleton James, White House personnel director. "He Farrell said we're following the policy of changing all presidential appointees. . . ." Farrell also was the aide who contacted Ruckelshaus last Friday. He did not return phone calls yesterday.
Kathy Wilson, a Republican who is chair of the National Women's Political Caucus, expressed outrage at the removal of Ruckelshaus, a progressive Republican with a good record on civil rights. "She's a brilliant woman and a visionary as far as women's and civil rights issues."
Reached at her home outside Seattle, Wash., yesterday, Ruckelshaus expressed concern not so much about her removal but the "unprecedented removal of so many commissioners at the same time. The question is what the intentions of the administration are toward the commission."
Ruckelshaus told friends that Farrell said the White House wants to appoint people who support the president's philosophy and worked in his campaign. She told Farrell, and friends, that no one asked her who she supported before she was asked to resign.
It is very clear, from both White House statements and actions, that the administration has no intention of respecting the integrity of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Instead, it is trying to politicize the commission into a body that will not challenge the unprecedented assault on civil rights from the White House and Congress.
"This is a rather important crossroads," said Flemming. Previous administrations have opposed efforts to weaken implementation of civil rights laws through regressive riders in Congress. "Now, the objective of those riders are consistent with the objectives of the administration, so that we have a really serious situation confronting us . . . . We need this independent, bipartisan commission now as never before."
The Senate, which has to confirm the nominations, may not have the power or the guts to block the administration's attempt to eviscerate the commission. But the least Congress could do is rename it. The joke, then, might not be so obscene.