The Reagan administration is considering a plan that would centralize all federal civil rights enforcement at the Justice Department and would in the process abolish the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and considerably shrink the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Civil rights groups have just heard about the proposal and are already working to kill it, on grounds that it would "literally gut effective enforcement efforts," as one opponent put it yesterday. Similar legislation was rejected by the Carter administration as basically an "anti-civil rights proposal."
Edwin Dale, a spokesman for the federal Office of Management and Budget, said yesterday, "Yes, we're definitely interested in that centralization idea." He said the department has not gone as far as to endorse the idea, which proponents say would cut costs. But he said that it has been discussed in meetings and that OMB Director David Stockman was aware of the discussions.
The proposal was drawn up by the Wednesday Group of 31 House Republicans. Its present chairman is William Clinger (Pa.). Another leading member and former chairman is M. Caldwell Butler (Va.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. The Wednesday Group would not release a draft of the legislation, which is expected to be formally introduced this month. But a copy obtained by The Washington Post indicated that the group is contemplating major changes in the present enforcement system.
The draft proposal would require that, to prove discrimination in civil rights cases, the government show that the person or agency accused either intended or could have "foreseen" the discriminatory effect.
This is a compromise of sorts between existing law and the administration's preference, which is to have the government prove intent in every case. But in many areas of existing law it is enough to show an action has had a discriminatory effect, regardless of intent; the anti-discrimination laws that govern grants under revenue sharing and by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration are examples of this.
The draft order would abolish the OFCCP, which enforces the current requirement that federal contractors maintain affirmative action plans for hiring and promoting women and minority-group members. Instead, the plan would leave to the discretion of the attorney general whether to issue affirmative action regulations.
The other federal agency dealing with employment discrimination is the EEOC; it has power to investigate discrimination charges, try to mediate them and, if that fails, take complained-of employers to court. These EEOC enforcement provisions would all be repealed and virtually all functions of the office would be transferred to the Justice Department. The only function left for the EEOC would be to deal with discrimination complaints from federal employes.
The language would make it more difficult for individuals to bring lawsuits in the employment discrimination area, leaving it more often to the attorney general; he would have authority to delegate many cases to state and local agencies.
In the area of education, the draft contains specific anti-busing language saying that, "regardless of the racial or ethnic composition" of a public school, students can be assigned to the school closest to home without any finding of discrimination. It also stipulates that the courts cannot reassign students because of civil rights violations.
The proposed legislation would make it far more difficult in all areas for the government to cut off funding in cases where discrimination has been proved.
Currently, the government can cut off all federal funding, for example to an educational institution that has been found guilty of discrimination. The Wednesday Group would allow suspension only of funding for the particular program in which discrimination was found. In addition, it would enable the court to postpone the fund withdrawal for up to six months in certain cases.
In the area of housing discrimination, the draft would repeal much of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, taking away all enforcement and investigative powers from the secretary of housing and urban development and eliminating the right of individuals to bring civil suits on their own.
The White House and Justice Department did not return phone inquiries yesterday regarding the official administration position.
But two government sources familiar with the proposal said there have been ongoing discussions, not only on the Wednesday Group legislation, but also on other plans from within the administration that might have even farther-reaching effects.
Both sources also said there have been discussions about reorganizing civil rights enforcement administratively, without having to deal with Congress. For example, OFCCP was created by an executive order, not by Congress, and could be eliminated by the president.
Drew Days, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division under Carter, said his impression when the Wednesday Group offered virtually the same plan in 1978 was that it would overwhelm the Justice Department and weaken enforcement. "It was a concentration of responsibility without adequate resources to carry out that responsibility. I regarded it--and I believe the Carter administration regarded it--as an effort to further complicate civil rights," he said.
"It would have saved money, but it wouldn't do anything for the people who need the government's intervention," he said.
Steven Hoffman, executive director of the Wednesday Group, said that the proposal has been sponsored in the past by Rep. Butler, and that the group is seeking co-sponsors before introducing the bill.
Ralph Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said his group is already circulating letters in the House to attempt to head off the legislation before it can be introduced.