The Trump administration is planning to disband the Labor Department division that has policed discrimination among federal contractors for four decades, according to the White House’s newly proposed budget, part of wider efforts to rein in government programs that promote civil rights.
The proposal to dismantle the compliance office comes at a time when the Trump administration is reducing the role of the federal government in fighting discrimination and protecting minorities by cutting budgets, dissolving programs and appointing officials unsympathetic to previous practices.
The new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has proposed eliminating its environmental justice program, which addresses pollution that poses health threats specifically concentrated in minority communities. The program, in part, offers money and technical help to residents who are confronted with local hazards such as leaking oil tanks or emissions from chemical plants.
Under President Trump’s proposed budget, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights — which has investigated thousands of complaints of discrimination in school districts across the country and set new standards for how colleges should respond to allegations of sexual assault and harassment — would also see significant staffing cuts. Administration officials acknowledge in budget documents that the civil rights office will have to scale back the number of investigations it conducts and limit travel to school districts to carry out its work.
And the administration has reversed several steps taken under President Barack Obama to address LGBT concerns. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, has revoked the guidance to implement a rule ensuring that transgender people can stay at sex-segregated shelters of their choice, and the Department of Health and Human Services has removed a question about sexual orientation from two surveys of elderly Americans about services offered or funded by the government.
The efforts to reduce the federal profile on civil rights reflects the consensus view within the Trump administration that Obama officials exceeded their authority in policing discrimination on the state and local level, sometimes pressuring targets of government scrutiny to adopt policies that were not warranted.
Administration officials made clear in the initial weeks of Trump's presidency that they would break with the civil rights policies of his predecessor. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of agreements to reform police departments, signaling his skepticism of efforts to curb civil rights abuses by law enforcement officers. His Justice Department, meantime, stopped challenging a controversial Texas voter identification law and joined with the Education Department in withdrawing federal guidance allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.
While these decisions have been roundly criticized by liberal activists, administration officials said that civil rights remain a priority for the Trump White House.
“The Trump administration has an unwavering commitment to the civil rights of all Americans,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in an emailed statement.
But Vanita Gupta, who was the head of Justice’s civil rights division from October 2014 to January 2017, said that the administration’s actions have already begun to adversely affect Americans across the country.
"They can call it a course correction, but there's little question that it's a rollback of civil rights across the board," said Gupta, who is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Labor’s budget proposal says that folding its compliance office into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “will reduce operational redundancies, promote efficiencies, improve services to citizens, and strengthen civil rights enforcement.”
Historically, the two entities have played very different roles. Unlike the EEOC, which investigates complaints it receives, the compliance office audits contractors in a more systematic fashion and verifies that they “take affirmative action” to promote equal opportunity among their employees.
Patricia A. Shiu, who led the compliance office from 2009 to 2016, said the audits are crucial because most workers don’t know they have grounds to file a complaint. “Most people do not know why they don’t get hired. Most people do not know why they do not get paid the same as somebody else,” she said.
Under Obama, officials in the compliance office often conducted full-scale audits of companies, examining their practices in multiple locations, rather than carrying out shorter, more limited reviews as previous administrations had done.
Some companies have questioned the more aggressive approach, noting the office has consistently found since 2004 that 98 percent of federal contractors comply with the law.
But the compliance office also scored some major recent legal victories, including a $1.7 million settlement with Palantir Technologies over allegations that the data-mining company's hiring practices discriminated against Asians. In a case involving Gordon Food Service, which serves the Agriculture Department, the Pentagon and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the office found the company had "systematically eliminated qualified women from the hiring process." The firm agreed to pay $1.85 million in wages to 926 women who had applied for jobs and hire 37 of them. Gordon Food was also forced to no longer require women to take a strength test.
In Education Department budget documents, the administration acknowledges that proposed funding levels would hamper the work of that department's civil rights office. The budget would reduce staffing by more than 40 employees.
"To address steady increases in the number of complaints received and decreased staffing levels, OCR must make difficult choices," the budget documents say. "OCR's enforcement staff will be limited in conducting onsite investigations and monitoring, and OCR's ability to achieve greater coordination and communication regarding core activities will be greatly diminished."
Some critics of the civil rights office said school districts often felt they were presumed guilty in the eyes of the federal government.
“There was sort of this sense that . . . if there was a complaint filed, there must have been done something wrong,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “But there’s usually two sides to a story.”
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Candice E. Jackson, who has been named as the acting head of the civil rights office, are committed to protecting all students from discrimination.
“Each civil rights complaint received by OCR is given due care and attention, with OCR serving as a fair and impartial investigative office,” Hill said.
Jackson’s nomination has added to the anxiety of civil rights activists. Jackson, a lawyer from Vancouver, Wash. and author of a book about women who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual assault, has written that programs aimed at fostering a diverse student body dismiss “the very real prices paid by individual people who end up injured by affirmative action.”
Similar concerns have been raised about Trump's likely selection of Eric S. Dreiband to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. A former Bush administration official and veteran conservative Washington lawyer, Dreiband has represented several companies that were sued for discrimination. (Dreiband is representing the Washington Post in an age and race discrimination case in federal court in the District.)
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the status of a a rule ensuring that transgender people can stay at sex-segregated shelters of their choice. The story has been corrected.
Lisa Rein contributed to this report.