Twenty-two House Republicans yesterday proposed a new civil rights bill to replace almost all existing federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, religion, national origin, age, handicapped status, martial status or political affiliation.
The bill's chances for passage are uncertain at best, but it stakes out a Republican position on once of President Carter's campaign promises, the reorganization of federal civil rights efforts. And it marks a first attempt by a bloc of congressional Republicans to appeal to minorities.
Representatives of the group told a news conference they want to strengthen and simplify civil rights enforcement. "Everything that's prohibited under any of the existing laws is prohibited under the bill," said Martin Garry, a staff aide who wrote the new proposal.
One of the supporters of the bill is Rep. John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.), House minority leader. He voiced his approval at the news conference.
The bill would scrap 47 exisiting statutes including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one executive order and part of another, and several anti-discrimination regulations, as well as agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and various federal offices of civil rights, the representatives said.
It would consolidate all anti-discrimination enforcement powers in the Justice Department, transfer to Justice the power to investigate and initiate complaints on its own, and set rigid timetables for the processing of complaints, they said.
It would also close some gaps in the coverage of sex and religious discrimination left by the maze of separate existing laws, as well as eliminate separate investigations into the same charges of discrimination by separate agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, they said.
Just reducing the number of agencies would "dramatically shift increased staff to the investigation and resolution of problems," sponsors said. It would not affect the governments own "in-house" civil rights efforts.
Proposed by the Wednesday Group, an association of liberal to moderate-conservative Republicans, the bill would beat Carter's own proposals to the congressional hopper if it is filed, as planned, in the next week or two.
A White House task force, which is still working on proposals for the President, has been reported in favor of a "comprehensive civil rights bill" to be proposed by Carter within two years. It reportedly would centralize more authority in both the EEOC and the Justice Department.
Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) said the proposal fills a need for a Republican initiative to strengthen civil rights. Garry answered "sure" when asked if the bill represents an attempt to attract more minority voters to the Republicans Party.
Ever since Carter was elected with overwhelming black support, some Republican leaders have argued that GOP must attract blacks if it expects to win elections in the future.
A major feature in the bill, the group said, would require an "expedited preliminary hearing," which would have to be finished within 30 days after a compalint of discrimination is filed.
If the hearing officer, an administrative law judge, ruled the complaint valid, the bill requires that federal funds to the accused organization be cut off while it appeals through the courts. Only a court order could stay the fund cutoff, the sponsors said, and then for a maximum of 180 days.
The group called that "a poweful incentive to voluntary compliance."
Garry said that provision would stop the hearing and appeals process from dragging out for years because funds keep flowing now until all appeals are exhausted.
Several Republican congressional sources said they could not remember any Republican attempts to strengthen civil rights legislation in the House since 1963, when 24 Republicans introduced a bill similar to what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
There was no immediate comment from civil rights groups. Garry said the proposal was not discussed with them until Tuesday.
Garry said the bill would not affect existing affirmative action programs run by the Labor Department. There is "no intention to cut back an any staff or money out there presently," he said.