WASHINGTON — Halfway through President Obama’s term, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights remains in Republican hands, and critics are raising questions about its future and ability to create a better America for victims of discrimination.
Due to what critics say is its unworkable structure, the commission has been largely ineffective in addressing civil rights issues, even with the recent addition of three Democratic members.
Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the commission. Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican and adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is acting chair.
Bush or Republican congressional leaders chose a majority of its members, but members serve six-year terms and cannot simply be replaced by a new administration.
Critics are pressing for adjustments that could end partisan gridlock while expanding its mission. “The commission of the 21st century can’t be the commission we had 50 years ago,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Fund.
Panel Strayed Under Bush
The federal commission was created a half century ago to be an independent, bipartisan monitor empowered to investigate civil rights issues, publish reports and advocate for fairer treatment of all citizens.
However, civil rights leaders believe that under President Bush, the panel strayed far from its original mission. For instance, they say, it ignoring such major developments as the mistreatment of black residents of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, while instead focusing on conservative ideological issues that reflected Bush administration positions.
President Obama can designate a new chairman and staff director, who can take office only with the support of a commission majority. A Democratic congressional appointment is also pending, which would give the panel the full complement of eight members, split evenly between Republican and Democratic appointees.
The main civil rights lobby in Washington contends that those steps would still fall short of making the commission an effective body, which, in the past, helped to shape the contours of such major legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Act of 1978 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has called for a legislative makeover that would require Senate confirmation of appointees, reset the membership at an odd number to avoid partisan deadlock and expand the commission’s oversight to include gay rights and domestic obligations under international human rights treaties. Those pacts include guarantees not specified in federal law, such as the right to a quality public education.
Should Panel Be Scrapped?
Mary Frances Berry, a former chair of the panel who wrote a 2009 book about the commission, endorses the proposal for new legislation, but she said the advisory panel is not worth preserving in its current form.
“It is sort of useless, to tell you the truth. What is it good for,” Berry asked? A history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he added, “I don’t see any change occurring until the statute is changed.”
Henderson also criticizes the commission’s performance in recent years, but does not support scrapping it soon.
“There have been some who think it’s better to put it out of its misery and defund it,” Henderson stated. “I’m not a supporter of that. If we would kill the Civil Rights Commission, it would never be recreated.”
Lenore Ostrowsky, the commission’s spokeswoman, said the panel and its staff are working on reports about disparate impacts in student disciplinary actions by schools, age discrimination in the workplace, on disparities in health care, the legality of requiring workers to speak English on the job and sex discrimination in liberal arts college admissions, including whether they have favored men.
Henderson and Berry conceded that new legislation to revamp the commission is unlikely to pass Congress as long as conservative Republicans dominate the House. Henderson maintained that the panel could be reformed from within, if the Obama administration can compromise with a Republican appointee on a new chairman, staff director and general counsel.
Split on Obama’s Appointments
Obama took a first step in January, naming two new commissioners, Marty R. Castro, a former chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission, and Roberta Achtenberg, a prominent advocate of gay rights and former Clinton administration official.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights praised the Obama appointees as “eminently qualified.” Speaking of the commission’s mandate, Henderson noted, “The fact that he chose someone openly gay for that seat is a sign he acknowledges the mission needs to be expanded.”
In December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appointed former Rep. Dina Titus, D Nev., who had lost a bid for a second term in November. She has been an advocate for people with disabilities.
Berry, however, said the appointments seem to be mere resemble political patronage. Because Castro is from Obama’s home state, and Titus is from Reid’s, she said, “That’s what you do with commissions that you don’t care about.”
On Jan. 7, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., nominated Michael Yaki, a lawyer from her home district of San Francisco, for a second term on the commission. His nomination awaits action by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A spokesman said in a Feb. 28 e-mail that Boehner’s office was “still working through the appointment process.”
Call for New Structure
Henderson and Berry support making civil rights commissioners subject to Senate confirmation, as they were before President Ronald Reagan, in an effort to assure that nominees are qualified individuals of stature.
“It prevents the appointment of political hacks with no substance and qualifications,” Henderson contended.
Berry said the 1983 Reagan-era compromise “led to the decline in the stature of the people on the commission.” That legislation split the nominating authority for commission members between the president and Congress, with Senate confirmation no longer required, although she acknowledged that the change would runs counter to Reid’s push to reduce the overall number of Senate votes.
The panel lost its previous independence and bipartisan cooperation during the Reagan administration and again under George W. Bush, Berry writes in her 2009 book, And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights concurred with her in its 2009 proposal titled, “Restoring the Conscience of a Nation.”
The current staff director, Martin Dannenfelser, was a Bush administration official and, before that, a staff member at the conservative Family Research Council. Although some have sharply criticized Obama for not replacing Dannenfelser immediately, Henderson emphasized that the president has not had the votes he needs either to replace him or a new chair.
“In order to have a [permanent] chair, a deal has to be cut” with a Republican appointee, Henderson said.
The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment on Obama’s plans for designating a chair and staff director. Without a bipartisan compromise, the commission could remain in the Bush-era mold until 2013, when the six-year terms of Republican appointees expire.