The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, backpedaling in a dispute with the White House, voted yesterday to pull back a staff report urging suspension of federal programs that reserve contracts for minority-owned businesses.
The 5-to-3 vote directing the staff to revise the report had the effect of placing the controversial issue on the back burner a day after the White House publicly reaffirmed its support for minority set-aside programs.
Commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. said he was "upset and disappointed with the White House" for endorsing set-aside programs. "This administration has to make up its mind whether it wants opportunities for all or preference for some, and stop speaking with a double voice," he said.
Pendleton denied suggestions that he had succumbed to White House pressure in tabling the report. "The president does not direct me and never has," he said.
But Commissioner Mary Frances Berry, a leader of the faction critical of the Reagan administration, said Pendleton had beat "a tactical retreat" and that the report was "a public relations ploy that backfired."
The commission's liberal members wanted to kill the report, saying that it was one-sided and had never been authorized by the panel. But the commission's conservative majority appeared determined to pull back the report, reportedly at the urging of White House officials.
The debate carried echoes of the continuing fight within the administration over whether to abolish minority hiring goals for government contractors. In both instances, a leaked copy of the proposal sparked an uproar among civil rights activists and members of Congress.
Federal agencies awarded more than $5 billion in work last year to companies headed by blacks, Hispanics and women under set-aside programs similar to those in many states and cities. The commission's draft report calls for a one-year moratorium to reexamine such programs, saying that they are costly, ineffective, rife with corruption and mainly benefit minority "fronts."
Legally, set-aside programs at the Small Business Administration and other agencies are aimed at "socially and economically disadvantaged" persons, but they generally aid minorities and women.
Berry accused Pendleton and staff director J. Al Latham Jr. of trying to align the commission with Justice Department conservatives, such as Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, who have sharply criticized set-aside programs as being too reliant on racial and sexual preferences.
Pendleton, a black who generally supports President Reagan, has challenged the White House on this issue. After Reagan repeated his support for set-asides in 1984, Pendleton wrote him that such programs "do mayhem to the Constitution and the civil rights laws."
Latham said yesterday's vote was a defeat for "those who favor racial quotas" and that "the basic principles" of "color-blind policies" will remain in the revised report.
The debate reflected the deep split in the commission since it was revamped in 1983 with four presidential and four congressional appointees. "This report provides fresh evidence of the credibility and management problems of the reconstituted U.S. Commission on Civil Rights . . . . The report is an example of commission work at its shoddiest," Berry said.
Pendleton and Vice Chairman Morris B. Abram, both Reagan appointees, endorsed the report. Abram called set-aside programs "blatant tokenism" that are "unworkable and un-American . . . . The idea that someone must be of a particular race to be granted the privilege of building a highway or bridge, in my judgment, is wrong."
But two other conservatives, Robert A. Destro and John H. Bunzel, expressed misgivings about the report. Destro called it "superficial" and said that while set-aside programs have been too strongly tied to race, they have "a very important symbolic value . . . of a nation's commitment to correct prior wrongs."