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SINS OF THE COMMISSION



Published: Tue, February 12, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



SINS OF THE COMMISSION

Washington Post: It is a mark of how low the prestige of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has sunk that it's hard to care much whether U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler was correct to rebuff an effort by the White House to install a lawyer named Peter Kirsanow. The administration argued that the seat was vacant; the commissioners claimed that it was lawfully occupied by a holdover appointee of former President Clinton. Judge Kessler agreed with the commissioners, and the administration is appealing. This might be a significant legal dispute were the commission a forum for serious discussion of civil rights. But the commission has long since become a partisan battleground. Whether its majority is Democratic or Republican only indicates which party's caricature of civil rights it will support.

It wasn't always this way -- and needn't be so now. When the commission was established during the Eisenhower administration, it used its investigative powers to shed light on systemic civil rights problems, and it spoke with great moral authority. That authority began breaking down during the 1970s, and the decline hastened during the Reagan administration, which sought to turn the commission's ideological direction around and make it a voice for conservative policies. The result was a pitched ideological battle. And the battle has continued, even worsened, under the commission's current chair, Mary Frances Berry, whose investigation of the Florida election controversy was highly politicized and contributed little, beyond noise, to the national discussion of the problems in the 2000 election.

Arab Americans: The commission, unlike other federal agencies, has no law-enforcement responsibilities. Its only function is to inform and elevate the debate. If it cannot do this, it is not worth having. It is certainly not worth spending $9 million of public money each year to inflame passions further. There are plenty of areas where a serious commission could be useful. To cite one contemporary example, it might examine how various counterterrorism policies are affecting the civil rights of Arab Americans, and what alternatives might mitigate that effect. It might examine how alternatives to university affirmative action have worked.

Yet the commission's forays in these areas have been unimpressive. A serious, rigorous commission could create breathing space for creative civil rights dialogue unbeholden to the orthodoxies of either the left or the right. Unfortunately, though, the political pressure on presidents and congressional leaders -- each of whom name some commissioners -- comes from groups invested in the orthodoxies, not in questioning them. As long as those responsible for naming commissioners are unwilling to buck the pressure, the commission's contributions will be negligible.




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