The Reagan administration carefully timed the release of its controversial announcement last month on restoring tax exemptions for private schools that discriminate to make sure the first stories on the evening news and wire services would contain only its views on the issue and no adverse reaction.
This information comes from documents that the administration turned over yesterday to the Senate Finance Committee, which is holding hearings on legislation the administration has now proposed to reinstitute the 12-year IRS policy of denying exemptions to discriminatory schools.
The administration announcement was made late in the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 8, the same day the Justice Department settled major antitrust cases against American Telephone & Telegraph and IBM. In the storm of criticism that followed the reversal, White House officials contended they had been unaware of the civil rights implications involved.
But a Jan. 5 memo from Ann Dore McLaughlin, assistant treasury secretary for public affairs, to R. T. McNamar, deputy treasury secretary, advised timing the announcement for 4 p.m. on a Friday to allow reporters as little time as possible to prepare stories and collect reaction. She said that release time "insures the first wire stories out--and thus the most widely used, especially by the broadcast media--will contain our rationale."
After yesterday's hearing, it was clear that Senate Republican leaders were looking for some way other than legislation to deal with the politically explosive issue.
Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), chairman of the committee and sponsor of the administration bill, told top officials of the Justice and Treasury departments that he was considering a resolution as an alternative to the bill.
The Jan. 8 announcement raised such a storm of criticism that on Jan. 19 the president put the issue in Congress' court by proposing legislation to deny tax exemptions for discriminatory schools.
The Senate, at least, apparently wants to toss it right back to the president. The bill has been attacked from both the left and the right and raises diffcult questions about both race and religion.
Dole, for instance, said he still hopes the Supreme Court will decide the Bob Jones University case that triggered the policy reversal, "so that Congress can benefit from the court's wisdom on these difficult constitutional issues."
Civil rights groups contend that a bill isn't necessary, just a repudiation of the administration's attempted reversal of the antidiscrimination policy, which was initiated in 1970 by President Nixon. A resolution sponsored by 28 senators supports the civil rights groups' view that no new legislation is necessary.
An aide to Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said Baker hasn't ruled out the possibility that he might support a resolution rather than the pending legislation.
Leaders of the religious right held a press conference yesterday before the hearing, denouncing the president's "betrayal" and the legislation. They said they would oppose it strenuously because it limits religious freedoms.
Administration officials at the hearing said they reversed the Nixon policy because they just wanted to defend the congressional right to legislate--which Senate leaders didn't seem eager to practice yesterday.
Deputy Attorney General Edward C. Schmults and McNamar said they dealt with the issue in December because of the pending Bob Jones case at the Supreme Court. They insisted their decision was based solely on their reading of the law, not political pressure from Congress or the president's campaign promises.
The exemption statute doesn't address the issue of race, so the IRS shouldn't have been deciding on its own that some private schools shouldn't discriminate, administration officials said. The 1964 Civil Rights Act doesn't apply either, they argued, because it bans discrimination by groups receiving "federal financial assistance." A tax exemption isn't such assistance, they said.
Schmults said the "separation of powers" between the three branches of government was "at the core of the legal issue" the administration had to consider in deciding a position on the Supreme Court case.
Sens. David Boren (D-Okla.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) both criticized the administration's handling of the policy reversal.
Boren wondered why, if the administration was so concerned about the need for specific legislative authority to deny exemptions to racist schools, it hadn't proposed the bill first, or at least at the same time as the Jan. 8 reversal.
McNamar took the blame, saying legislation was being considered at the time but wasn't ready because administration lawyers were "consumed" with addressing the legal position on the Supreme Court case.
Moynihan expressed exasperation at Schmults' contention that the Nixon adminstration "succumbed to the pressure of public opinion" in making the 1970 policy, itself a reversal of previous practice.
Noting that he was a White House adviser at the time, Moynihan said the change was motivated by a desire to end segregation in the public schools while not letting a separate segregated system build up in private academies.