The House Judiciary Committee is putting together what sponsors call the most important civil rights bill in 15 years, to strengthen enforcement procedures against discrimination in housing.
The committee began work on the bill last year but set it aside to work out a compromise that could win broad committee support. Yesterday it began voting on the new version and beat down efforts to weaken language providing an administrative remedy for complaints of discrimination in sale of housing.
Under the 1968 Open Housing Act, the federal government is limited to conciliation where discrimination is alleged. An aggrieved person can go to court, but not that many minority-group members have the resources to launch a lawsuit.
The pending bill would set up a procedure within the Department of Housing and Urban Development of Housing and Urban Development for administrative law judges to hear complaints and hand down decisions. Appeals could be made to federal district courts, which could conduct limited proceedings to collect more evidence, but this would not amount to a complete new trail. The original bill provided for insurance of cease-and-desist orders which could be appealed directly to federal appeals courts; those panels would decide only whether the order was based on substantial evidence. Opponents of cease-and-desist orders, which amount to injunctions issued by bureaucrats, wanted the enforcement power vested solely in the courts.
The committee yesterday handily defeated an effort to remove the administrative machinery and leave action to the courts.
The bill would also expand the definition of discrimination to include not only refusal to sell to persons because of race but also to handicapped persons.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), manager of the bill, said it is the most important civil rights bill to come before Congress since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which led to mass registration of black voters in the South. This is more important than the 1968 Housing Act, said Edwards, because it would provide the first real enforcement machinery. A Senate subcommittee has held hearings on similar legislation.