THERE WAS ONLY a little cheering on Capitol Hill Thursday when the House passed legislation amending the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Too bad there wasn't more. If the Senate can now be persuaded to go along with what the House has done, the major weakness -- a lack of effective enforcement provisions -- in that 12-year-old statute will have been eliminated.
The final vote in the House, 310 to 95, was deceptive. Amendments designed to gut the legislation had failed by as little as one vote. But when the final count came -- the count that will be examined during this fall's election campaigns -- more than a hundred members who had previously voted to perpetuate the law's principal weakness lined up with the old civil-rights coalition.
The main argument in the House -- and it will be repeated in the Senate -- concerned where the power to enforce this law's provisions barring discrimination should be lodged. The civil-rights groups (and the administration) wanted and got it put in the hands of administrative law judges; the opponentsof this bill wanted to leave it with the federal courts.
In theory, the whole argument was frivolous, since this law, like others, can be enforced by either group fairly and efficiently. But in practice, that is not the case. The federal courts are so busy with criminal and major civil cases that complaints about violations of the fair housing law drag on unresolved for months.And the truth of the old adage -- justice delayed is justice denied -- has been especially sharply illustrated all too often when the question is who will get to buy a particular house or rent a particular apartment.
Member of the House who wished to gut the bill contended that administrative law judge would be biased in favor of those who claim some property owner has discriminated against them. No one ever adequately explained why the opponents believed judges handling these cases would be biased while similar judges who handle case involving the enforcement of dozens of other federal laws are not.
In other words, the principal objection to the legislation is phony. Unless those who raise the question of bias are prepared to dismantle the whole system of administrative law now in place and dump tens of thousands of cases on an already crazily busy court system, they should give up this objection.