ANYONE WHO looks at the maze of civil-rights laws and the ways in which the federal government goes about trying to enforce them know that some fundamental changes need to be made. So it is not surprising that 22 members of the House of Representatives have come up with a proposal to replace practically all the laws now on the books with one comprehensive statute and to consolidate the government's enforcement efforts in the Department of Justice. What makes this proposal particularly interesting is that these 22 congressmen are Republicans and that they are trying to outflank their Democratic colleagues as well as the Carter administration in the civil-rights field.
As we understand their proposal, it makes little substantive change in the government's policy toward discrimination. It would plug some loopholes that now exist in the 47 laws that bar discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion, national origin, age, handicapped status, political affiliation or marital status. But its basic purpose is consolidation and reorganization. Leaving aside the details - and those, no doubt, are sunject to negotiation and change - the idea is sound. There is too much overlap, inefficiency and inconsistency in the way the civil-rights laws are now enforced. Whether the Department of Justice is the appropriate enforcement agency and whether some substantive changes should be also be made in the laws themselves are questions that can be considered as this idea moves toward becoming legislation.
The political aspects of the proposal are something else. Because of its source - 22 House Republicans - it is likely to be dismissed by civil-rights organizations as a partisan gesture and perhaps embraced too warmly by various business groups. Howere, it could well be the forerunner of the kind of proposal that the Carter administration will make eventually. The president promised a civil-rights reorganizations during his campaign, and a White House task force has been working on the subject. This move by the Republicans is an effort to beat him to the punch and to gain for themselves a little leadership in a critical area of public policy where their party has been notoriously silent for the last decade. It would be unfortunate if, because of these political overtones, this proposal became part of a partisan argument instead of being considered on its merits.