Speaking to U.S. Military Academy graduates at West Point Saturday, President Bush attacked the Democratic version of the civil rights bill that goes before the House of Representatives today by saying, "Regardless of how they dress it up, you can't put a sign on a pig and say it's a horse." In fact you can. But the sign doesn't make the pig a horse.
In this case, the president is as guilty of misleading signage as his opponents. The Democratic version is not as he charges "a quota bill" (pig). It says quotas are an "illegal employment practice" under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, we can see how the president and other conservatives may think it is not a horse (quota-proof), either. The bill's language on quotas says they can't be imposed "regardless of whether such persons meet necessary qualifications to perform the job." That could be read to mean that in a job pool of equally qualified applicants, quotas can be imposed.
We don't read it that way, especially when it is considered in the context of the bill allowing suits for "reverse discrimination." But assuming the president and other Republicans are truly worried, there ought to be a way to rewrite that section of the Democratic bill that still achieves the desired result -- prevention of intentional discrimination -- without the potential for quotas. We think the two sides are close enough to agree.
Similarly, the Republicans and the Democrats are close enough to agree on the key question of what constitutes a defense against charges of discriminatory tests or other hiring requirements that result in a firm's work force not reflecting the work force in its area. The Democrats say the employer must prove that requirements that produce the disparity bear a "substantial and manifest relationship" to the job. The president would put the burden on the employer, too, but wants job requirements to meet a lesser standard: "significantly serving. . . legitimate employment goals."
These and other disagreements are not insignificant, but they are not a worthy basis for scuttling a civil rights bill. A consensus, truly bi-partisan civil rights bill is desirable at this time for its own sake, regardless of its details. That is because the advance of civil rights depends on public mood as much as on the language of laws. That mood is affected by political debate and division.
The landmark civil rights bills of 1957, 1960, 1964, 1965 and 1968 passed with the support of majorities of Republicans and majorities of Democrats. (Unlike the voting on the 1990 civil rights bill, with its partisan division.) The resulting laws were accepted and quickly implemented. Obviously they didn't solve all the problems, but they kept up the momentum for a better America.