The 1988 presidential campaign may have a new issue: civil rights. In the wake of the congressional override of the President's veto of the civil rights bill, the Democrats are expected to try to exploit the issue against GOP front-runner George Bush. This week the vice-president, reluctant to distance himself from President Reagan, cautiously backed the presidential veto.
While Mr. Bush had a strong civil rights record before becoming vice-president, political observers say, he may now have burned his bridges to blacks and other minorities - groups whom he says he wants to bring into the Republican Party.
But the issue should not hurt Republicans generally, for it took strong bipartisan support to make the Civil Rights Restoration Act the law of the land. Despite the President's last-hour appeal to Congress to sustain his veto of what he called ``this dangerous bill,'' the Senate yesterday overrode his veto by a 73-to-24 vote. The House was also expected to override.
Proponents of the legislation hail it as an important victory for civil rights, restoring the power of the federal government to withhold funds from institutions that discriminate on grounds of race, sex, handicap, or age.
``It reaffirms the civil rights laws passed in the '60s and '70s and it means that the government cannot use tax money to subsidize discrimination,'' says Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
``It's a ringing affirmation that the goal of civil rights is extremely important,'' says Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe. ``Congress simply restored the law to where it was and properly should have remained.''
Conservative critics charge that this civil rights act will expand government's intrusion into religious and private-sector activities.
The new act, in effect, overturns the 1984 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Grove City College v. Bell, which limited the enforcement of four civil rights laws. In that 6-to-3 decision the high court held that only the specific ``program or activity'' of an educational or other institution receiving federal aid, not the entire institution, was covered by antidiscrimination laws.
The case involved Title IX of the 1972 Education Act amendments barring discrimination on the basis of sex. But three other laws - prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; discrimination against the handicapped; and discrimination based on age - also contain the ``program or activity'' language, and they, too, were affected by the ruling.
As the Department of Education began dropping sex-discrimination complaints, congressional leaders and civil rights advocates vigorously criticized the Grove City decision, arguing it went against the intent of Congress in adopting the four civil rights laws.
In the four-year battle to overturn the decision, lawmakers made a number of changes in the bill to meet the concerns of critics. Ultimately, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) of Minnesota, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote a letter to Mr. Reagan urging him to sign the measure.
But the President stood firm, contending that the bill expands the scope of federal jurisdiction and ``diminishes the freedom of the private citizen to order his or her life.''
Reagan offered an alternative civil rights proposal, but the White House pushed it too late in the day, clearly leaving some Republicans dismayed.
``It's rather too bad that it didn't get to us earlier,'' said House minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois.
Political watchers wait to see what effect the issue has on the Bush campaign. Longtime GOP strategists suggest that Bush made the right decision in sticking by the President.
``It's not Bush's place to be second-guessing, on a day-to-day basis, the decisions of his boss,'' says James Lake, a former Reagan campaign official. ``If he feels free to criticize the veto, what's to stop the Democrats from pressing him to criticize the next bill or policy? Bush has come a long way by being loyal to the President and being able to reflect Reagan's views and popularity.''
Other analysts, however, note the difficulty Bush has in establishing an independent voice. Backing the President on the civil rights bill may stand him in good stead with conservatives in the primaries, observers say, but it could be a negative factor during the election campaign.
The Civil Rights Restoration Act
The act expands enforcement of a number of laws restricted by a 1984 Supreme Court decision. These prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, age, race, color, national origin, and handicap in programs receiving federal funding. The bill redefines ``program or activity'' to make clear that entire institutions must not discriminate if any part of the institution receives federal aid. It covers:
State and local agencies. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee report gave the example that if part of a state's health department receives federal aid, the whole department is required to abide by civil rights laws.
School systems. For instance, the Senate report says that if one of three secondary schools in a system run by a Roman Catholic diocese receives federal aid, all three schools must comply with the laws. Colleges, universities, and vocational schools are included.
Corporations, other private groups. If federal aid is given to the enterprise as a whole, or if an organization is ``principally engaged'' in providing certain public services, it must comply. Otherwise, only the ``geographically separate'' plant or facility receiving aid must comply.
The bill's controversial Danforth amendment restricts some protections for women seeking abortions by allowing hospitals that receive federal aid to refuse to perform an abortion.
According to the bill, discrimination does not include denying work to someone with a ``currently contagious disease or infection'' that would ``constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals.''