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After a relatively quiet period earlier in the year, affirmative action rulings are once again coming to the forefront on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps spurred by the passage of Prop 209 in California, Republican conservatives in Congress mounted yet another anti-affirmative action campaign by recently reintroducing legislation aimed at scrapping all federal programs designed to help women and minorities win federal contracts. Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Florida), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and co-author of Proposition 209, recently introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1998. (See “A Disturbing Proposition,” Newspoints, January 1998.) The bill would prohibit the federal government from requiring or encouraging federal contractors, subcontractors or recipients of federal assistance “to discriminate or grant preferences to individuals on the basis of their race, color, national origin or sex.”
While Canady says his bill is an effort to provide equal opportunities for all Americans, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) says the bill is actually inclined to eliminate the few gains minority groups have made in recent years. “Everywhere you have these laws, minority opportunities plummet and in some cases they totally evaporate,” says Scott, who is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. “You have to differentiate between the rhetoric and the effect of the law. We know the effect these laws have had.” The status of this bill is pending, and it likely won’t come up for a vote until later this year.
But there is some good news to report on another front. The Senate killed an amendment that would have scrapped a 15-year-old program that assists minorities and women to win federal highway contracts. In a 58 to 37 vote, 15 Republican senators joined all but one Democrat, Sen. Earnest Hollings from South Carolina, to vote against legislation that would have dropped the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program from the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act for the next six years.
The program calls for firms owned by minorities and women to get no less than 10% of the federal highway contracts. Since the program began in the early 1980s, the percentage of contracts women and minorities annually receive has increased from 2% to 15%.
Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater praised the Senate action, calling it a “vote of confidence” for the program. But the news wasn’t all good. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who sponsored the amendment, was able to get legislation through the Senate that requires a review of the program every two years. And individual states can suspend the program entirely if it is declared unconstitutional by their federal courts.
McConnell and many Republicans are hoping that the federal courts-which are packed with judges appointed by former President Ronald Reagan–will declare the program unconstitutional.
While Canady and Republican conservatives see their efforts as the civil rights struggle of the 1990s, Scott says people can’t be fooled by empty words. ” The strategy is to dress it up and make it sound like it is doing something it’s not doing,” Scott says. “In fact every time this language has been used, it has devastated
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