The Justice Department official in charge of the "gender discrimination agency review" of federal laws and regulations has characterized as "a sham" the program the Reagan administration considers to be its alternative to the Equal Rights Amendment.
In an article in the opinion pages of The Washington Post today Page C8 , Barbara Honegger, a special assistant in the Justice Department's civil rights division, said that her group has been told it has no authority to propose changes in laws and regulations found to discriminate against women and may only supply the White House with a list of such laws.
Another Reagan administration official, who requested anonymity, yesterday said the effort devotes undue energy to uncovering trivial legal gender distinctions with no impact on the interpretation or enforcement of the law. In some cases, for example, a generally applicable law is found to be discriminatory because it uses the pronoun "he" instead of "he or she."
"This effort isn't going to produce any surprises," the official said. "It's a lot of motion going nowhere."
Honegger's criticisms, however, focused on the bureaucratic roadblocks that, she argues, doom the work.
"To date," she wrote, "three Quarterly Reports on discriminatory laws . . . have gone forward to the president, over the signature of William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, but not a single law has been changed."
At the same time, she said, the second part of the administration's ERA alternative, an effort to have the states perform a similar search-and-amend mission on discriminatory laws and regulations, "became impossible as a matter of lack of priority . . . .
"All that has resulted from the project to date," she said, "is a pretty booklet listing what the 50 states had already done . . . ."
President Reagan, she said, "has reneged on his commitment."
Her complaints come at a time when the Reagan administration has been trying to improve its image on women's issues and to close the political "gender gap" found in public opinion polls. They have shown that women currently tend to disapprove of Reagan in far greater numbers than men, which could threaten his reelection prospects.
Honegger said in an interview yesterday that she wrote the article for The Post's opinion pages out of frustration when she saw her project and other initiatives stalled in the bureaucracy.
She reported that Reynolds' interpretation of the executive order creating her group and the separate presidential Task Force on Legal Equity for Women effectively stymied any move to change discriminatory laws.
Unless the Justice group can recommend changes in the laws, she said, "the president's Cabinet Council can do nothing. Without Cabinet Council action, the Task Force on Legal Equity has nothing to do."
The original Task Force chairman, Assistant Attorney General Carol Dinkins, has resigned and not been replaced.
After being recruited into the Reagan administration by former White House domestic affairs adviser Martin Anderson, with whom she worked at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, Honegger worked in the White House for about 14 months, until March, 1982. She then went to the Justice Department.
In today's article, Honegger wrote that, when her group was developing a list of "search" words for a computer review of federal laws and rules, she was called to the White House and reprimanded by a presidential aide because the words "abortion" and "pregnancy" were on the list.
White House spokesman Mark Weinberg, told of the Honegger article late yesterday afternoon, had no comment.