THE RAUCOUS and racially explosive fight over the vetoed 1990 Civil Rights Act will resume early next year when civil rights groups reintroduce the measure. It is not likely to be a useful debate.

At the center of that debate will be the issue of quotas in the workplace -- an issue marked by disingenuousness on both sides. Proponents, largely Democrats, avow that they abhor the use of quotas to hire or promote minority workers. And yet they worked hard in the last Congress to defend language in the bill that would make it more likely that businesses would resort to hidden quotas or face protracted litigation.

Opponents, led by the Republican administration, argue not only that the bill would force quotas but that quotas are already common in the job market -- a charge contradicted by businesses and which suggests the administration cares less about the new bill than about building an electoral base for the 1992 election.Republicans make no bones about seeing political advantage in the quota issue. The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, former drug czar Bill Bennett, recently told reporters that attacks on quotas programs are a "perfectly legitimate" campaign issue for Republican candidates. Those who bemoan the focus on this racially explosive issue are interested in "muzzling" debate over a policy most Americans find troubling, Bennett said. That perspective is supported by Bob Teeter, President Bush's pollster, who sees quotas as a "fundamental question in American life" that "need not be avoided in a campaign."

When Bush vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 he declared he was taking a stand against efforts to "introduce the destructive force of quotas into our national employment system." But in arguing their case, the president's men quickly moved beyond the question of the civil rights bill's potential impact to charge that quotas are already a fixture in the market place.

John R. Dunne, the Bush adminstration's assistant attorney general for civil rights, argued that when he talks "one-on-one with women, blacks, Hispanics or Asians, what they want is hiring by quotas." Polls support Dunne: 63 percent of blacks say they support having the government set "racial quotas requiring companies to hire and promote blacks," while 74 percent of whites disapprove.

Dunne said he is also "convinced" that most American companies already employ quotas despite the 1989 Supreme Court Wards Cove decision which made it more difficult for employees to bring "disparate impact" cases based on imbalances between the composition of an employer's workforce and that of the relevant labor market. As evidence, Dunne points simply to the fact that some companies have a racially balanced "composition in its workforce." This, he claims is resulting in lower productivity as well as discrimination against white males.

"There are quotas in almost all American businesses today," said Clint Bolick of the Landmark Center for Civil Rights, who met with Bush during the debate over the 1990 act and advised him not to sign it. "Quotas are adopted by American business today to minimize the risk of litigation. There is enormous competition for qualified minorities to keep the numbers up . . . . To the extent that standards are modified or relaxed everyone involved is shortchanged." Civil rights groups, for their part, point to amendments added to the bill in its final stage declaring that the bill should not "be construed to require or encourage quotas."

"I don't know what they are talking about -- as a political issue we have never supported quotas," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP. "What we say is that companies must meet requirements for equal employment opportunity and there should be some relation between their workforce and the population of qualified workers but never a quota."

"You've got to be qualified," said Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.), co-sponsor of the 1990 civil rights bill. "The problem with all the affirmative action laws is that if you have been sufficiently discriminated against in education and training then you can't take advantage of the law because you are not qualified to hold the job . . . . If you can't show that you are qualified the employer doesn't have to hire you."

But the fact is that, even after substantial amendment, they have written a bill that makes it harder for employers not to resort to proportional hiring -- harder in fact than under the Supreme Court's 1971 Griggs decision that proponents say they wish only to restore. Not trusting a federal court system now more than half-filled with Reagan-appointees and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court to judge fairly a plaintiff's complaint in an unintentional discrimination suit (intentional discrimination is not at issue and is covered by other laws), the bill's proponents have raised the standard for any hiring decision.

Under Griggs, an employer was allowed to consider any aspect of a job applicant's record "manifestly related to the employment in question." If job applicants felt they had been discriminated against, they had to demonstrate that an employment requirement -- such as a screening test or high school diploma -- had the effect of unnecessarily preventing women and minorities from getting jobs. Employers then had to show that the requirement was legitimately related to job performance.

The Supreme Court's 1989 ruling changed the burden of proof by requiring that the person charging discrimination show how the requirement was unrelated to the job. Proving discriminatory impact can be a daunting task for an individual -- although the administration points out that the courts have continued to find for plaintiffs in many such cases since the 1989 ruling. So Congress set out to pass legislation to put the burden back on employers.

But under the bill that was passed this year, the only allowable screening criterion is a "significant relationship to successful performance of the job." Such a standard, opponents argue, might not only preclude basing promotions on outstanding performance, for example, but might rule out even affirmative action programs -- a veritable Catch-22 for employers wanting to increase minority hiring or promotion. Moreover, unless a company could document the impact of every employment practice, the person claiming discrimination would not have to indicate which practice or practices caused the employer to fail to have the appropriate race, sex and ethnic distribution of workers.

"Significant relation to job performance takes on enormous meaning in terms of litigation," said Frank J. Landy, president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, who believes the 1990 civil rights bill mandated quotas. "We would have been delighted to go back to Griggs, which called for a manifest relationship to the appropriate business outcome. But significant relationship is different. It made it impossible for an employer to win a case. A bill dealing exclusively with job performance means it is not reasonable to be concerned with accidents, absences or even predictable turn-over ratios." Still, the administration has equally failed to prove its case that quotas are now prevalent and a threat to U.S. productivity. A March 1989 poll by Fortune magazine found that 82 percent of U.S. companies said they have no quotas. Of the 18 percent using quotas, most had been found guilty of discrimination and were under court order. Moreover, 68 percent of CEOs said affirmative action programs were "good, very good or outstanding"; only 2 percent called them poor.

"I haven't heard of any companies using quotas," said Bill Baroody, senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. During the Reagan adminstration, NAM opposed efforts by then-attorney general Ed Meese to have the president rescind an executive order requiring government contractors to set goals and timetables for hiring women and minorities. But NAM opposed the 1990 act on two points, according to Baroody: first, the bill established compensatory and punitive damages in cases of intentional discrimination instead of simply allowing back-pay and promotions, which NAM felt might encourage lawsuits; second, NAM felt the the bill encouraged quotas.

The Justice Department's Dunne contends that companies are not honest in their public protestations that they do not use quotas. But having failed to produce a verified case of quota usage (except under court order), it clearly bears the burden of proof on this point. Moreover, a look at practices employed by a group of employers -- including Wards Cove Packing Co., the company that won the controversial 1989 case -- does not support the administration's contention.

All of the companies questioned have affirmative action programs and their commitment has apparently not lessened either as a result of the veto of the 1990 civil rights bill or the Supreme Court's 1989 decisions, which made it more difficult to bring discrimination suits against employers. But those programs seem to stop well short of outright quotas.

At Ford Motor Co., in Dearborn, Mich., the company boasts that it has had an affirmative action plan for the last 50 years. Ford looks at each of its offices and factories and tries to make sure that its workforce is "representative of women and minorities given their availability in the civilian workforce," according to Louis Camardo, Ford's Equal Employment Planning Manager. " 'Availability,' " said Camardo, is the key factor. "That is a measure of the percentage of minorities or women in any group, say mechanical engineers, who are qualified and interested in that job."

Ford also checks data on degrees being conferred and tries to adjust its hiring to increases in minority or female graduates. Company managers in each section have goals for minority and female hiring.

When a job opens up at Ford, the car company gets a group of qualified job candidates. "That's step one," said Camardo. "Everyone is qualified." Then any candidates with credentials and experiences "head and shoulders," above the others are hired. If the candidates are equal, Ford will consider if it wants to add a woman or minority to its workforce.

Affirmative action is much the same at 3M Co., the Minnesota chemical company "We have no quotas," said Christopher Wheeler, senior vice president for human resources. "We have goals based on the availability of professionals in the discipline and in the community we are operating in."

Specific staff managers have responsibility for networking with qualified minorities and establishing recruiting programs at major colleges. The firm also has a student program in which as many as half of the participants are women and minorities with the hope that the students will want to work at 3M when they graduate.

"What has happened over the last 20 years," said Wheeler, "is that American companies have gotten away from the statistical approach to affirmative action and began to recognize that to compete in a world economy we have to maximize our talent and to do that we have to have diversity . . . . Our problem with the civil rights bill was that it was written as if that shift had not taken place. It is preoccupied with discrimination and companies hellbent on discrimination more than dealing with diversity." At General Dynamics Corp., the defense contractor, minority hiring takes on a more intense profile because the company is a major government contractor. An affirmative action plan is reviewed and an annual plan has to be approved by the federal government.

"We don't have quotas at work," said Arch Rambeau, corporate vice president of human resources at the company's headquarters in St. Louis. "We do try to fill in underutilization, but if we can't do it with affirmative action, then {the government} looks to see if we made a good faith effort. And if we have, then we are okay. If we had quotas, the government would look only at the statistical picture -- period."

At Wards Cove in Seattle, company president Alec Brindle brags that "this company has had an affirmative action program for 20 years. Essentially we tell our people that in skilled jobs we are looking for at least 15 percent women and minorities . . . . Everyone understands how the game in played. When it comes down to the short strokes we are looking hard for minorities to fill the jobs. That is just the world we live in, but it's not a quota. If it was a quota, people would rebel because the new workers wouldn't have the skills to do the job."

Ford, 3M and Wards Cove all report no resentment from white males over their affirmative action policies. And all three opposed the 1990 legislation because they felt it required quotas.

"Our goal is steady progress," said Camardo of Ford. "But if you are going to be challenged solely on the basis of numbers, you must be able to say we have hired too many or too few because of specific job-related terms. The bill didn't allow for that."

There are many other features of the pending civil rights legislation that both sides agree are important. But passage won't be possible unless both sides also agree to get honest about what the language of the bill is likely to produce -- in litigating a slippery-slope issue like discriminatory impact, details can be very important; and honest about what is currently happening, and not happening, in workplaces and courtrooms.

"When this bill comes up again," says Yale law professor Drew Days, a former assistant attorney general, "it will be back to the level of a swearing contest unless President Bush is willing to stand up, say the bill has problems and that he is going to work them out. It is up to him."

Juan Williams writes frequently for Outlook. Jodie Allen is editor of Outlook.