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Civil rights commission: dying embers?

In the halcyon days of the civil rights movement, the United States Civil Rights Commission was one of the major protagonists for progress. Its powerful reports and statements buttressed the civil disobedience protests and congressional actions of the 1960s and early '70s, as black Americans made giant strides toward legal equality with their white brethren. But times have changed for the Civil Rights Commission. Instead of being lauded by civil rights backers, it is frequently criticized -- especially in Congress -- as, in effect, backsliding on past racial progress. Says one Capitol Hill critic: ``It's gone from watchdog to lapdog.''

When the House and Senate reconvene Sept. 8, they are expected to decide whether to force the commission to curtail its work drastically, or to put it out of business within two months.

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Like the commission, the nation's civil rights problems -- and the steps to deal with them -- have dramatically changed.

``In the next decade,'' says commission member John Bunzel, ``the context in which civil rights issues will be discussed will have to be reassessed.'' The coming years, he says, will be ``very different from the 1960s and 1970s,'' and will require ``new ideas and fresh perspectives to deal with some of the problems that are likely to influence'' the civil rights agenda. He mentions, as an example, finding a successful way to deal with the problems of the black underclass.

Efforts to curtail the commission's activities come as it is working on several major studies, including reports on affirmative action, busing for racial balance, white flight, minority voting rights, and the isolation of Hispanic students in schools. To kill the commission now would, presumably, mean the end of these studies.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted to cut virtually in half the commission's budget for the next fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1. Congressional sources say the full Senate is likely to concur.

The House has already voted to cut off all funding for the commission, except for money necessary to close it down. After the Senate's action, the two bodies will have to reach agreement on the commission's future.

The commission's chief lightning rod is its outspoken chairman, Clarence Pendleton, who has earned the enmity of many civil rights advocates by criticizing affirmative action, racial quotas, and leaders of major civil rights organizations. Other observers, however, think his views deserve airing.

But the issues are more basic than one man. A leading issue, Dr. Bunzel says, is the commission's purpose. How long should the US require a commission to keep track of civil rights progress and violations? Should the commission's mandate focus more broadly than on the traditional definition of civil rights -- should it encompass, for instance, all problems of the poor and disadvantaged? These questions go beyond the purview of the commission itself, and are up to Congress and the administration to decide.

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