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A Berry Good Time To Go

The Justice Department's Civil rights panel has outlived its usefulness.

11:00 PM, Jan 4, 2005 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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REPUBLICANS GREW SO EXASPERATED by the reign of Mary Frances Berry as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that they wound up calling for the agency's termination. But now that Berry, a member of the commission since 1980 and its chairman since 1993, has resigned, Republicans see things, shall we say, afresh.

President Bush has appointed to take Berry's place Gerald Reynolds, who ran the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights in 2002 and 2003. Republicans will have effective control of the eight-member commission (and, just as important, its staff). And so, supporters of the reconstituted agency say, many good things can now be done.

I'm prepared to believe that. But do we really need the civil rights commission to do them--or, for that matter, to do anything?

Once upon a time there was a palpable need for the agency. In 1957 Congress created the commission in order to cast a badly needed spotlight on racial discrimination. The commission was charged with investigating alleged violations of voting rights and to collect information on discrimination generally. An independent, nonpartisan agency, it was to report its findings to the president and Congress.

And so it did, in successive reports dealing with voting, education, employment, housing and justice--reports that helped persuade Congress to pass the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s.

The commission was supposed to go out of business, and it should have, especially since the work of civil rights quickly shifted to the new offices created to implement the new laws. Those offices had enforcement power that the commission lacks still today, and they were at least as able as the commission to assess civil rights matters and the need for any new laws.

Today--47 years after the temporary but never-ending commission was established--the federal code fairly ripples with civil rights statutes. By my count, at least 45 departments and agencies--even the Library of Congress, even the General Services Administration, even the Tennessee Valley Authority!--have enforcement offices. There is nothing those offices can't do that we need the toothless civil rights commission to do for them.

Nor would the public discussion about civil rights suffer in the least if the commission were shuttered tomorrow. The number of private groups dedicated to this or that aspect of civil rights has increased exponentially over the past 40 years. In addition to those holding traditional liberal views, you have groups of conservative and libertarian inclination (such as the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Institute for Public Justice).

The groups watch federal as well as state enforcement efforts, lawmaking and judicial selection. They do fact-finding, hold conferences, bring and defend against lawsuits, write articles, argue on talk shows and in the blogosphere. It's hard to imagine any new perspective that even a redirected civil rights commission might advance that isn't already represented in a clearly vigorous, multisided public debate.

During Berry's tenure, the GOP argument for terminating the commission typically cited its jaw-dropping lack of accountability. Over the past decade the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Personnel Management conducted a series of reviews that portrayed a thoroughly dysfunctional agency. The Berry majority and the commission staff resisted making significant administrative changes.

Nor did the commission allow itself to undergo an independent audit. There's not been one in 12 years.

Let's assume that the Reynolds majority corrects the maladministration and makes the commission (annual budget: $9 million) a model of good government. Let's assume, too, that the Reynolds majority avoids partisanship, something the Berry majority shamelessly engaged in (tilting, in case you didn't know, against Republicans).

The question would remain--a question too seldom asked in Washington these days--as to why we still need this little chunk of government. And the obvious answer is: We don't.

What's needed instead is the political will--in the White House and in Congress--to let the commission pass into history, its achievements of yesteryear duly noted, its temporary nature finally achieved.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.