A bipartisan group of congressional liberals and moderates today is to reintroduce the open housing bill that died in the Senate during the final days of the last Congress.
The bill to add enforcement teeth to a 1968 act outlawing racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing was considered the most important civil rights measure since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is one of the major pieces of unfinished business left over from the last Congress.
Sens. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) called a news conference to announce revival of the bill. Mathias conceded that some "might say we are on a fool's errand" since this is a more conservative Congress than the last one, when supporters couldn't break a filibuster in the Senate and won the key vote in the House by the margin of a single vote. But, said Mathias, the issue transcends ideological positions and "we intended to see that the promise [of the 1968 law] is carried out."
Kennedy recalled that when the bill died last December, Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), now the Senate majority leader, promised to help pass an open housing bill in this Congress. But Metzenbaum agreed that supporters face an uphill fight, what with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) chairing the Senate civil rights subcommittee and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C) chairing the full Judiciary Committee. Both have considerable power over scheduling legislation before the committee and both oppose the bill in the version supported by civil rights groups.
The fight now is now, as it was in the 1960's, over something versus nothing, but rather over procedure. Civil rights groups want enforcement by administrative order as the quickest and least costly way to provide relief. Thurmond and others who were opposing any kind of civil rights bill 20 years ago now would support legislation providing relief through the federal courts. Fish said this would take so long a house would be sold before the case could be decided.
Mathias and the others may not have the votes to get all they want, but they hope by introducing the bill early with fanfare to prod Hatch and the others now controlling the machinery to enact some legislation in this Congress.