MAXWELL:  Action not affirmative in 104th Congress

8/6/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


While many other areas of American life _ colleges and universities, Fortune 500 companies and even the Southern Baptist Convention _ are embracing diversity, the U. S. Congress, which makes laws to protect citizens from unfair treatment, remains one of the nation’s most discriminatory employers.

After the nation has struggled for three decades to bring more minority and female workers into private jobs and federal offices, Congress, now under a Republican leadership claiming to have made equal opportunity for all Americans a priority, is trying to dismantle the very programs that promote fairness.

More cynically, Congress, which hires 19,000 employees, steadfastly refuses to write an affirmative action plan for itself. A recent Washington Post article points out that part of the reason for this dereliction of duty is that few members of this Republican Congress, like the Democrats before them, have actually had to manage a workplace with mandates supporting equal opportunity.

In other words, these mostly wealthy white males have been shielded from the nitty-gritty experiences they were elected to sort out.

Moreover, this Congress’ traps and fakes indicate that a level playing field is not part of its game plan. In January, for example, the 104th passed a law that brings itself into compliance with civil rights laws governing the rest of the nation. Pulling an end run out of its playbook, however, these same lawmakers exempted themselves from affirmative action regulations that extend to the private sector and to federal executive branch agencies.

As a result of these exemptions and institutionalized bigotry, the numbers of women and minority workers have plunged on Capitol Hill. The Post reports that, according to 1993 and 1994 surveys conducted by the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, while minorities comprised 22 percent of the country’s work force, they filled only 16 percent of the positions in lawmakers’ personal offices in the House and 15 percent in the Senate. Minority faces, especially black ones, were even rarer in more prestigious jobs: 12 percent in the House and 4 percent in the Senate.

White women are luckier in some areas. Although they represent 45 percent of the nation’s workers, white women held 60 percent of the posts in House and Senate offices. Among the top staff, however, these females accounted for 39 percent in the House and 34 percent in the Senate. Not surprisingly, very few minority and female employees work for committees that write and influence legislation.

Black-American professionals have been the biggest losers since Republicans took over the Beltway. The Post states that independent congressional scholar Jeffrey Cooper found in a survey conducted last spring that only 12 black aides worked for House committees _ one-sixth of the number in the last Congress. The most dramatic finding is that fewer than six black aides work for the 20 Senate committees _ a 50 percent decline in the number of black professionals on this side under the GOP’s colorblind hiring policies.

According to the Post, only the Capitol Police, which has 1,000 officers, and the Architect of the Capitol agency, which has 2,300 blue-collar employees who keep the buildings and grounds, are making any real, albeit forced, attempts to follow affirmative action “goals and timetables” in hiring and promoting women and minority workers.

How do Republicans get away with such crass hypocrisy? Public opinion analyst Louis Harris, in a column for the New York Times, explains: “Affirmative action, which most Americans favor, and preferential treatment, which most oppose, are conflicting ideas. To destroy affirmative action for women and minority groups, Republicans . . . create confusion so the two ideas are perceived as synonymous.”

Harris uses the California Civil Rights Initiative, which will be on the ballot in 1996, to argue his point. The measure would end affirmative action in the Golden State.

To dupe voters, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and others who crafted the scheme never use the words affirmative action: “The state will not use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the state’s system of public employment, education, or public contracting.”

When Harris asked California and national respondents to define “preferential treatment,” most said it meant favoritism and nepotism. It was seen as reverse discrimination in which unqualified minority workers are hired over qualified white men.

But when asked to define affirmative action, 68 percent of the same whites favorably concluded that such programs are designed to help women and those in minority groups who had been denied equal opportunities in employment and education.

House and Senate Republicans are not dummies. They know exactly what Harris knows and, therefore, play on the public’s lack of information, ignorance and gullibility in matters of race. For these reasons, Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a presidential candidate, and Rep. Charles T. Canady of Lakeland blithely draft bills that exempt Congress, along with other government entities, from complying with the mandates of federal affirmative action programs.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat who represents more federal employees than any other House member, is a rarity on Capitol Hill because he understands Congress’ political and moral obligations. “We should comply (with civil rights laws) because it’s the right thing to do,” he told the Post. “Same with affirmative action. It’s right for the private sector. It’s right for Congress.”

The point must be stressed that the women and minority employees on the Hill, along with Rep. Wynn, are not asking for quotas or “preferential treatment” _ but for the equal opportunities that the GOP ostensibly has made a central part of its agenda.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.