By Kenneth J. Cooper
WASHINGTON-Halfway through his term, President Obama is moving to wrest control of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from Republican appointees, but questions are being raised about its future and its 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. An appointee of former president George W. Bush serves as the panel’s staff director, and Bush or Republican congressional leaders chose a majority of its members.
Commissioners unanimously elected a recent Obama appointee, Martin Castro, the new chairman on March 11. A Mexican American, Castro is president of Castro Synergies, based in Chicago. Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican appointee, is vice chairman.
Still, critics have been pressing for adjustments that could end partisan gridlock while expanding the mission. “The commission of the 21st century can’t be the commission we had 50 years ago,” says Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Fund.
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. But civil rights leaders say that under Bush, the panel strayed far from its original mission, ignoring such major developments as treatment of black residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina while instead focusing on conservative ideological issues that reflected Bush administration positions.
Obama designated Castro as chairman and can designate a 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 that, 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.
Mary Frances Berry, a former chairwoman who wrote a 2009 book about the commission, endorses the proposal for new legislation but says 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?” asks Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “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 says. “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, says the panel and its staff are working on reports about disparate impact in student disciplinary actions by schools, age discrimination in the workplace, 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 concede that new legislation to revamp the commission is unlikely to pass Congress soon since conservative Republicans dominate the House. Henderson maintains that the panel can be reformed from within if the Obama administration can compromise with at least one Republican appointee on a new staff director and general counsel, now that his choice as chairman has been installed.
Obama took a first step in January, naming two new commissioners: Castro and Roberta Achtenberg, a prominent advocate of gay rights and former Clinton administration official. Commissioners are appointed for a term of six years.
In December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, appointed Dina Titus, a Democratic congresswoman from Nevada who had lost a bid for a second term in November. She has been an advocate for people with disabilities.
Including those members, Republican appointees hold a 4-3 majority on the commission. Thernstrom, a Republican who is an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was acting chairwoman until Castro’s election.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has praised the Obama appointees as “eminently qualified.” Henderson interprets selection of Achtenberg, in particular, as a signal that Obama supports extending the commission’s mandate to include gay rights.
“The fact that he chose someone openly gay for that seat is a sign he acknowledges the mission needs to be expanded,” Henderson says.
Berry, however, was less impressed with Castro and Titus. She suggests that their appointments resemble political patronage because Castro is from Obama’s home state and Titus is from Reid’s. “That’s what you do with commissions that you don’t care about,” Berry says.
On Jan. 7, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nominated Michael Yaki, a San Francisco lawyer, for a second term on the commission, a Pelosi spokesman said in an e-mail. Yaki, a former senior adviser to Pelosi, is from Pelosi’s home state, California. His nomination awaits action by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A spokesman said in an e-mail on Feb. 28 that Boehner’s office was “still working through the appointment process.”
Henderson and Berry support making civil rights commissioners subject to Senate confirmation, as they were until the 1980s, 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 says.
Berry says the 1983 compromise legislation that split nominating authority between the president and Congress, with Senate confirmation no longer required, “led to the decline in the stature of the people on the commission.” She acknowledges that reinstating Senate confirmations runs counter to Reid’s push to reduce the overall number of nominations on which the chamber must vote.
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 draws the same conclusions in its 2009 proposal for revamping the commission, 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.
Curtiss Reed Jr., chairman of the Vermont advisory committee until the commission ousted him in December, criticizes Obama for leaving Dannenfelser in place and says he “should have been replaced the day after Obama was inaugurated.”
Henderson says Obama has not had certain votes on the commission to ratify a replacement for Dannenfelser.
Thernstrom was elevated from vice-chair to chairwoman when the term of Gerald A. Reynolds ended in December. She declined to comment about prospects for Obama installing new leadership.
The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment on Obama’s plans for designating staff director