The clock runs out on the Equal Rights Amendment at midnight tonight, and women's groups are taking little comfort in two Reagan administration alternatives designed to assure women equal rights without a constitutional amendment.
The programs are the 50 States Project, aimed at encouraging states to identify and amend laws that discriminate against women, and its federal counterpart, the Task Force on Legal Equity for Women, intended to accomplish the same goals with federal laws and regulations.
Women's groups charge that the administration efforts are halfhearted and meaningless duplications of earlier work. The projects, they say, are more a smoke screen masking the administration's lack of commitment to women than a means of achieving any substantive change.
"The administration is trying to appease women with these programs and it just won't work," said Demetra Lambros of the National Women's Political Caucus. "Both these programs are a sham. They are not by any means going to supply the 'E' and 'R' without the 'A.' "
Judy Goldsmith, vice president of the National Organization for Women, said, "Neither is anything but fluff." The 50 States Project and the Task Force on Legal Equity are "poor second-class rehashes of work that has been done before and done better," she said. "It is simply an absurdity. They are simply reinventing old wheels that are not going to go anywhere."
Both the Carter and Ford administrations had task forces investigating laws and regulations that discriminated against women. Reagan administration spokesmen argue that their task force is not only new but improved, because it has authority to implement regulatory changes once they are approved by the president.
But Linda McCann, a Justice Department spokesman for the task force, said that most of the major discriminatory laws and regulations already had been remedied by agencies, by Congress or in the courts. As a result, she said, many of the recommendations for change are likely to involve "more subtle distinctions, verbiage"--changing "seaman" to "sailor," "chairman" to "chairperson" and the like.
The task force's quarterly report, due in April, was sent Monday from the Justice Department to the Cabinet council on legal policy, which will review it and send recommendations to President Reagan.
The task force's mission, McCann said, is "more a task of finishing what has been begun" than of making wholesale changes in the law.
But Goldsmith complained that the administration's approach is merely "putting bandaids on gaping wounds" that could have been fully healed only by the ERA.
Critics' views of the 50 States Project are equally dim. According to a study by Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), most states have already combed the laws on their books to uncover statutes that discriminate against women--the very aim of the 50 States Project. Thirty-four states have completed systematic studies, Edwards found, and only eight have done nothing about reviewing their laws.
"We think it's fraudulent," Edwards said of the 50 States Project. The project, Edwards said, is the president's "excuse for not doing anything substantive. He's trying to pass the buck back to the states when there are just so many women's isues that should be addressed. Apparently the words are not in the administration's vocabulary about day care, economic equity, vigorous enforcement of affirmative action."
Thelma Duggin, a special assistant to the president who was appointed head of the 50 States Project last week--the project's third director since its birth in May, 1981--conceded that "there is some truth that some of the states had already started" reviewing their laws. But other states, Duggin maintained, have benefited from the "networking" opportunities presented by the project.
In line with the administration's "New Federalism" philosophy, Duggin said, "What we basically do is try to act an an encourager or motivator to provide them with any information or support they need."
She described the White House role as that of "a clearinghouse and catalyst." For example, Duggin said, Utah has appointed a committee to review its statutes since the 50 States Project was launched.
The critics remain unconvinced. Said Goldsmith: "Going state by state or statute by statute is not going to accomplish anything--not anything lasting."