Crafting a civil rights bill


MINORITIES AND WOMEN who were disappointed when President Bush vetoed the 1990 Civil Rights Act should look to achieve their goal, equal employment opportunities, by additional means as well -- lest they be disappointed again this year.

Bush rejected the rights bill last year, claiming it would force businesses to impose employment quotas. Now House Democrats have crafted a strategy to get a new version of the bill enacted: By focusing heavily on discrimination against women as well as minorities, its sponsors hope to win broader support for another Congress-Bush showdown.

But what is needed is more finesse, not more muscle.

Essential principles of this legislation must not be sacrificed; it was intended to undo Supreme Court decisions shifting the burden of proof in discrimination cases to the complainant, and that is what it must do.

But those who are pushing for an ironclad anti-discrimination law might consider, for example, working for the desired results -- increased work force participation -- through non-legislative job development initiatives, too.

It would be wonderful if Bush, now riding a crest of unprecedented presidential popularity, would magnanimously sign into law a bill like the one that he rejected last year, after conservative Republicans grabbed control of the debate.

But it's unlikely.

One hurdle facing the leading House bill (none has been introduced in the Senate yet) is that it removes a limit, which in the previous bill was $150,000, on the amount of punitive damages that discrimination victims could collect.

Because Bush still wants such a limit, proponents might well yield on that. In practice, punitive awards to aggrieved minorities have seldom been higher anyway.

Bending on details that way should be matched by compromise by Bush, too. But quibbling over details could go on ad infinitum. So Congress also should look beyond litigating civil rights. The -- challenge is to move the debate from a struggle over the law to a search for broad avenues to upward mobility.

For example, the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, has proposed youth apprenticeship programs at local businesses and a voluntary national service corps where young people could earn college scholarships through service to their communities.

Credible initiatives like these, together with principled legal protections, in the end are likely to prove better than legal protections alone.

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