The Civil Rights Commission on Friday rejected a recommendation by its own staff to suspend federal programs that reserve certain percentages of government contracts for firms operated by minorities and women, voting to direct the staff to rewrite its report.
The 5-3 vote was taken after a long, raucous debate over the controversial report, and critics immediately called the action a “tactical retreat” because it occurred the day after the White House announced its unequivocal support of the programs.
Pendleton Answers Critics
But Commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., an outspoken critic of affirmative action programs, responded to that criticism after the panel’s session: “Lies. The President does not direct me and he never has.”
On Thursday, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said: “The Administration position is that we support the minority set-aside program.”
Pendleton, at one point during the heated debate in a packed hearing room, said: “This Administration has to make up its mind--whether it wants opportunity for all or preferences for some.”
The Justice Department has spoken out against the programs, prompting Pendleton to call on the Administration to “stop speaking in a double voice.”
Under the programs, devised by Congress and presidential orders, the federal government sets aside designated percentages of work or money for businesses run by women and minorities. Last year, contracts totaling $5 billion were awarded in this fashion.
Civil rights activists have praised the programs as a way to inspire entrepreneurship and to ensure equal opportunity in the business world.
‘Tainted by Fraud’
However, the commission staff report that was rejected Friday disputed this view, contending that the programs do not encourage creation of minority firms, have led to “displacement of a number of innocent non-minority subcontractors,” are poorly administered, result in overcharges to the government and “have been tainted significantly by fraud.”
The 96-page draft report recommended the yearlong moratorium and urged federal, state and local governments to find “alternative measures” to address the under-representation of minorities and women in businesses.
The commission, first established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, was reconstituted in 1983 with a conservative majority. It has no enforcement powers but it investigates civil rights problems and recommends policies to the President and Congress.
Before the vote on the draft, J. Al Latham Jr., staff director, made an impassioned plea on behalf of the report, calling the programs “blatant examples of government treating its citizens not as individuals, but according to their group characteristics.”
‘Work at Its Shoddiest’
However, in a joint statement, Commissioners Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez called the report “an example of commission work at its shoddiest,” adding that it “concludes with the flimsiest findings and recommendations possible.”
Of the eight commissioners, only two--Pendleton and Vice Chairman Morris B. Abram--spoke in defense of the report, an indication that the panel did not have enough votes to endorse the draft as written.
When asked why he voted to rewrite the draft, Pendleton said he wanted the staff to “strengthen the findings and recommendations.”
Calling the report “superficial,” Commissioner Robert A. Destro, part of the panel’s five-member conservative majority, also recommended that it be rewritten. The remaining members who voted to revise the report were Abram, John H. Bunzel and Esther Gonzalez-Arroyo Buckley.
Although Commissioners Berry, Ramirez and Francis S. Guess opposed the draft, they also voted against the motion to rewrite it. Berry charged that the move to revise the report amounted to a “tactical retreat” and suggested that it may never surface again.
Earlier, on the same 5-3 vote, the commission defeated a move by Berry and Ramirez to reject the report outright, without sending it back to the staff.
Votes Called Victory
After the three-hour meeting, commissioners continued shouting at each other, and Latham portrayed the two votes as a victory “against those who favor racial quotas.” He said he did not know how long it would take to rewrite the report but he asserted that it “will be sustained.”
The report has been skewered by congressional critics, including California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), who called it “an embarrassment.”