When a little independent government agency is fighting for its life with the big powerful White House in hot pursuit, is it sometimes better to throw in the towel than to see it emasculated?
In the wake of President Reagan's firing of three Democratic holdovers on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a couple of influential civil rights leaders have privately suggested that it would be better to allow the commission to disappear this fall, when legislation authorizing it will expire, than to have its life extended while the president stacks its membership with people who can be counted on not to criticize his policies.
I can understand the fatigue and fury that might lead to that conclusion, but I hope the idea doesn't catch on. Now, more than ever, an independent voice to speak for the voiceless is needed. Now more than ever is the time to stand and fight.
The commission members Reagan fired just happen to have been vocally at odds with his administration's policies. Their dismissal brought a dense cloud of gloom over the civil rights community, lifted only slightly when two of the fired members went to court to challenge the president's actions. Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez filed suit charging the firings were illegal. "I think what the president has done is fundamentally bad for my country . . . . I am outraged," Ramirez said.
And as John Shattuck of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, "What the president did . . . was a real indication of the weakness of his administration, not strength. It was an act of desperation."
The Civil Rights Commission that the president has been trying to undermine has spoken out on issues of a critical nature that concern millions of Americans. In 1982, its 104-page report on minority unemployment in the past decade showed that hiring bias still exists against women and black and Hispanic men "virtually everywhere, at every age level, at every educational level, at every skill level."
It sharply contradicted conservative economists and sociologists who were arguing that education, geographical location and the white-male work ethic accounted for the persistently higher unemployment rates among women and minorities.
The commission has taken those stands while Reagan's administration has appeared determined to certify as enemies the very people the laws were designed to protect. In a speech last summer, for example, President Reagan partly attributed a decline in public education to the schools' efforts to comply with court orders banning discrimination against women, minorities and the handicapped. This administration has tried to revoke the policy denying tax exemptions to private schools that discriminate. It has fought busing and affirmative action.
You might argue that Reagan is following the mandate of the majority who put him into office. But who, then, speaks for the rest of the people, who pay taxes, fight in the wars and disproportionately suffer under his policies? They're Americans, too.
That's why a bipartisan group of congressmen's swift condemnation of the president's action against the commission was very gratifying, an indication that they understand the importance of the agency and intend to fight to retain its life. "They're fed up with the president's posturing," says Shattuck.
A consensus is forming in the House and Senate on the need for a commission wholly independent of the executive branch. This plan to bring the commission under the wing of Congress is not without its risks, but it is certainly the best proposal so far to preserve the agency's independence.
Meanwhile, Reagan's persistent attacks on the commission are an indication of how critical is the need for just such an independent body. The whole history of the country is predicated on the notion that every person has a right to speak, and the commission represents the view millions of Americans have at this time. The commission can't bend political institutions to its will, but its members can speak for those who are lowest on the totem pole.
Now, more than ever, that voice needs to be heard.