Members of a House Judiciary subcommittee charged yesterday that the Agriculture Department, despite signs of recent progress, is failing to provide basic civil rights and equal opportunity for its employes.
Chairman Don Edwards (D-Calif.) and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the senior Republican on the civil and constitutional rights subcommittee, upbraided Deputy Secretary Peter C. Myers over continuing reports of an enforcement breakdown at the USDA.
Myers conceded that the department had not solved all its problems, but he said a strong civil rights-enforcement directive from Secretary Richard E. Lyng and departmental follow-up had improved the situation and "got the message" to agency managers.
But Sensenbrenner, complaining about USDA officials' vagueness in answering some of his questions, said he was concerned that "there really has not been vigorous follow-up on the secretary's directive" and that another hearing should be convened to force the department to be more specific.
Sensenbrenner also said a memorandum sent to the panel anonymously by "someone in the know" had detailed such serious civil rights problems at the department that the subcommittee needed to learn more.
Edwards agreed that another hearing would be set for 1988 to review USDA's performance in assuring that the civil rights of its program recipients are protected. But, he added, "We've been holding hearings on USDA for 15 or 20 years, and we're getting pretty tired of it. It doesn't matter if it is Republican or Democratic administrations. A lot of people are getting hurt."
Edwards told Myers, who was named by Lyng to see that his directive was enforced, that the changes he outlined to the subcommittee were "modest when compared to the task at hand" and admonished him to take "extraordinary steps" to make broader improvements.
But he blamed Assistant Secretary John Franke Jr., USDA's director of equal opportunity programs, for a "failure" of fair employment and civil rights policies during the Reagan administration. "This is a record you created," he told Franke. "You have no expertise in civil rights."
The chairman said new practices described by Franke to punish agency managers for ignoring Lyng's orders were "not much more than wrist-slapping" and that training schemes he outlined would not change the attitudes of an "old boy network" in USDA that has no interest in protecting employes' rights.
Myers defended himself and Franke, saying they had been "deservedly critical" of themselves. But he gave no indication that he would follow Edwards' suggestion that he appoint a civil rights expert with "clout" to make certain that agency managers follow the law and make USDA a "model agency."
Hampered by severe budget cuts, repeated changes in directors and various reorganizations, the department's equal opportunity and civil rights programs have been in almost constant turmoil since 1981. In reaction to the turmoil and reports of deep-seated discriminatory practices in the department, Lyng issued his order shortly after becoming secretary last year.
The subcommittee also heard from three Washington lawyers familiar with enforcement problems at USDA.