ONE OF THE THINGS this lame duck Congress should do before it leaves town is to finish work on the long-awaited amendments to the fair housing law. The House passed these amendments in mid-June, and they have been pending on the Senate calendar since early August. More than a third of the senators have now asked that they be brought up for consideration before Congress adjourns.
The Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968, is one of those laws that promises more than it delivers. It contains no effective enforcement provisions. Those claiming its protections against discrimination usually discover that the time they must invest is hardly worth the effort. They can complain to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and hope the government can successfully conciliate the dispute. If it doesn't, they can take the matter to federal court, where long delay seems to be the rule rather than the exception. The government can take housing discrimination cases into court only if there has been a "pattern" of discrimination.
The changes already approved by the House would create a set of administrative law judges with power to order an end to discrimination. Their decisions could be appealed to the federal courts. This would provide a much cheaper and more efficient way to resolve complaints without burdening the courts. It might even provide a way to dispose of some complaints before the house in question were sold or the apartment rented.
Unfortunately, that proposal is a little too straightforward for some members of the Senate who seem to prefer a fair housing law that delivers no housing. The threat of a filibuster over this provision, more than anything else, has kept the Senate leadership from bringing up the amendments.
There may be room for a compromise here, one that replaces the new administrative law judges with the existing federal magistrates. The key to the success of such a shift would be to keep the proceedings before the magistrates simple and speedy and not permit them to become bogged down in the tangle of rules and hearings that encumber most federal court cases. If this could be accomplished, the goal of those who have been trying for a decade to amend the fair housing law so it can be enforced might be reached -- and the unjustified feat that administrative law judges would not decide cases fairly might be stilled.