By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
The clash between President Bush and Civil Rights Commission chair Mary Frances Berry over when Berry’s term expires is more than a head bump between two strong-willed public officials whose views on civil rights differ wildly. It’s about what the rights panel should be about, and how tightly its commission should be under the thumb of the White House.
Bush may dump Berry any time now; the White House says her term and that of Vice Chairman Cruz Reynoso expired Dec. 5. Berry, ever the defiant gadfly, publicly defied Bush and said she won’t leave until Jan. 21, when she reckons her term is up. The eight commissioners have six-year terms, and under an agreement with Congress the White House can appoint four commissioners.
Berry is an unabashed liberal Democrat who hails from the older 1960s civil rights oriented generation of blacks in the South that experienced segregation first-hand. During her quarter century on the commission, Berry tried to make it a fighting agency that exposed and rooted out racial and gender discrimination.
The problem is that the commission has always been hamstrung by money and politics. It has no enforcement power, and its paltry budget of $9 million is one of the tiniest of any federal agency. Bush has proposed lopping off another $1 million for 2005. Conservatives have railed against the commission as a racially divisive, Republican bashing, liberal advocacy group. They want Congress scrap it altogether. A House Judiciary Subcommittee is currently investigating the commission for alleged financial hanky-panky.
Berry and Bush bumped heads well before Bush was re-elected. The Commission under Berry’s tutelage virtually accused Republicans of stealing the Florida election through vote fraud, tried to sandbag the seating of a Bush appointee to the commission and touted affirmative action programs at college campuses in Texas, Florida and California. Three weeks before the presidential election, Berry infuriated Republicans by authorizing the posting on the commission’s Web site of a report by career staffers that accused Bush of miserably failing to provide leadership on the enforcement of civil rights laws.
Republicans screamed foul. They charged that Berry released the report that they hadn’t read or approved to embarrass Bush and help tip the election to Democratic presidential contender John Kerry.
Bush’s civil rights record is not as terrible as Berry claims. Nor is it as terrific as Bush claims. Bush’s Justice Department initiated more lawsuits on education and voting rights cases than during Clinton’s final years. And former Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive and guidelines in 2003 to all federal law enforcement agencies banning the practice of racial profiling. But prosecutions of police abuse and hate crimes plunged during Bush’s first term.
Berry’s greatest fear, though, is that Bush will pack the commission with conservative hard-liners who will turn it into a do-nothing, rubber-stamp agency. Berry should know about that. In the 1980s, Berry and the commission lambasted President Reagan for backing a decision by the Justice Department to overturn an IRS decision denying a tax exemption to Bob Jones University, which bans interracial student dating. Berry also relentlessly opposed Reagan’s anti-affirmative action stance. A piqued Reagan promptly fired her and three other commissioners. Berry sued in federal court and got her job back, and Congress backed away from its threat to take the power to appoint commissioners away from Reagan on the grounds that he abused his authority.
It was a pyrrhic victory. Reagan’s choice for commission chair, Clarence Pendleton, proved an embarrassment, with his shoot-from-the-hip attacks on civil rights leaders, his blatant opposition to affirmative action and his refusal to aggressively investigate civil rights abuses. Pendleton was also dogged by scandals involving government contracts and expense padding. The commission degenerated into a squabbling, toothless shell. In the next decade, other than issuing the occasional bland and innocuous report, the commission was rarely heard from. Ironically, the controversy over Bush’s election breathed life back into the commission, and brought it, and Berry, back onto the public’s radar.
There was never any doubt that Bush would oust Berry from the commission the first chance he got. But will the commission, as Berry fears, become an inert panel of Bush administration yes-persons? Bush says no, and promises that it will uphold his strong commitment to civil rights. We’ll know if that’s true when we see Bush’s replacement for Berry. We won’t have long to wait.
Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a featured columnist for Blacknews.com and African American newspapers nationally.