President Reagan is considering issuing a policy statement on affirmative action to quell a growing dispute between top officials of the Justice and Labor departments over whether the government should play a role in pushing jobs and promotions for women and minorities.
Currently, the administration has no formal policy on affirmative action, but it has consistently opposed the use of quotas, goals and timetables in hiring women and minorities.
Labor Secretary William E. Brock, however, in a recent speech to the NAACP and in private remarks to White House officials, has been pushing for a change in policy.
Brock, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has long argued that Republicans and the administration should make a commitment to ensuring equal job opportunity as a way of appealing to women and blacks. He has taken up that banner again in his first three months as labor secretary.
"Until now, we've said what we don't like, but not what we do like," said an administration official. "We've condemned every idea, but never said what we think would work. We've been more reactive than proactive and that's what the president wants to change."
However, debate over any new administration statement on affirmative action would probably take place within the White House Domestic Policy Council, which is headed by Attorney General Edwin Meese III, an opponent of quotas, goals or timetables. Aspects of the affirmative-action debate were discussed at the council's meeting yesterday, which was attended by Meese and Brock.
"Brock is outnumbered on this, but he's making the good fight and enjoying it," a White House adviser said. "I think he knows he can't win."
Brock "is not his own man on this," said another White House official, who added that the administration's statement is likely to continue to oppose quotas, goals and timetables while asserting opposition to discrimination.
The president's statement would be the basis for all future administration civil-rights policy, according to officials. No timetable has been set for issuing the statement, but two officials said it might be made about the time of the National Urban League convention in Washington, beginning July 21.
Several key policy decisions could be affected by the president's statement. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is reviewing the statistical guidelines it uses to detect patterns of discrimination against blacks, women and Hispanic Americans.
Under present guidelines, if selection procedures, such as as tests, interviews and physical exams, result in minorities and women being hired at less than 80 percent of the rate for white males, the statistical imbalance is considered evidence of an "adverse impact" on minority and women workers. On that basis, the EEOC could consider legal action against the employer.
Also, the Labor Department's requirement that minorities and women be given a share of jobs on federally funded projects continues to be debated within the administration.
Brock's comments at the NAACP seemed to indicate his support for the requirement, even as the Justice Department has been challenging local government's affirmative-action agreements.
The president was advised to make a statement on affirmative action after Brock told the NAACP two weeks ago that affirmative action would be needed in the United States "for a considerable period of time into the future."
Breaking with the Justice Department's position, Brock distinguished between quotas and the need for goals and timetables in hiring minorities and women. He said Americans have a duty to help redress the aftereffects of slavery and segregation.
Brock added that he intends to "enforce the [civil-rights and affirmative-action] laws as they were written and intended." Brock made that speech just before the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, to the No. 3 job in the department. Reynolds' nomination was rejected, in part, because of what critics viewed as his failure to enforce civil-rights laws.