Congress should reauthorize the Civil Rights Commission. There is still a job to be done, although it is a rather different one from that which confronted the newly created commission 25 years ago.
Some charge that the commission is adrift in social policy, a mere advocacy organization. But the commission's publications reveal that close to 90 percent of its output is right where it should be--on problems of discrimination: monitoring all levels of government for their compliance with and enforcement of civil rights laws; studying patterns of employment and working conditions to monitor discrimination; documenting violence against racial and religious minorities; contributing to the continuing debates over affirmative action, school desegregation methods, and so forth.
Some of the commission's work is less conventional, although justifiable. Its study of black farmers continues nearly two decades of commission interest in whether federal programs have been especially damaging to black farmers and have thereby contributed to black rural flight. A controversial study of discrimination against "Euroethnics" was ordered by Congress. The commission examined the "new federalism" primarily to ask what would become of the civil rights compliance strings attached to categorical grant programs.
So, many complaints about the commission are overstated. But it does do some things foolishly and badly. By addressing areas on the fringe of discrimination, the commission risks becoming a fringe organization. Its bolder forays into controversial areas have at times lacked the rigor and balance of its data-gathering efforts. The commission has been known more than once to sound like an adjunct of private civil rights and advocacy organizations, and some people fear that over the years its political independence has been severely eroded.
The commission has enough money and manpower--$12 million and more than 230 civil servants-- but its effectiveness depends on the quality of its work. Presidents and senators should not treat appointments to this commission as familiar matters of patronage, reward and ideology. The wrenching issues are too tough for amateurs. Commission members, unlike some at present and in the past, should bring stature to the job--not come in search of it. And they should come without allegiance to either private organizations or political officials, all of whom the commission must be prepared to criticize.