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Rights Commission's Life Extended After 18-Hour Lapse in Authorization

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Washington--For about 18 hours last week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights ceased to exist.

But on Nov. 30, a "new" bipartisan fact-finding agency--carrying the same name and expected to be composed largely of the same members as the old one--arose to take its place.

The new panel came into being as President Reagan signed HR 2230, a bill passed by the Congress before it adjourned Nov. 18 for a nine-week recess.

Shortly before it expired, however, the old commission released a report that was critical of Mr. Reagan's handling of civil-rights issues. It was reports of this nature that were said to prompt the President to "shake up" the panel's membership.

The new commission will be composed of eight members--two more than the original commission. The expansion is the result of a compromise between the President and the Congress over his firing of three commissioners in order to make room on the panel for people whose views on issues such as school desegregation and affirmative action are reportedly closer to his own.

'Phase-Out' Period

The original commission went out of business at midnight on Nov. 29, the final day of a 60-day "phase-out" period.

Its original authorization expired on Sept. 30. Because of the dispute over the President's nominees, a bill that would simply have reauthorized the panel became bottled up in the Senate.

The compromise reached last month allows Mr. Reagan to appoint four of the panel's members, including its chairman.

Two members will be appointed by the Speaker of the House, and the remaining two by the president pro tem of the Senate.

Mr. Reagan, as expected, appointed the original commission's chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., to the new panel.

The old panel's staff director, Linda Chavez Gersten, was also carried over by the President.

Mr. Reagan is also expected to reappoint its old vice chairman, Mary L. Smith, and two of the three people he nominated for office to the new body--Morris B. Abrahm and John H. Bunzel.

The Congressional leaders are expected to appoint Mary F. Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez--two of the three commissioners fired by the President--as well as Jill S. Ruckelshaus, another incumbent commissioner.

The third fired commissioner, Rabbi Murray Saltzman, has indicated that he does not wish to be appointed to the new panel. House and Senate aides report that a final decision has not been made about the fourth Congressional appointee to the new group.

'Growing Problems'

As of last week, it remained unclear whether the new commission will be unable to conduct any business before late January because the House and Senate leaders were unable to make their appointments before they adjourned.

The commission's Nov. 22 report, "Federal Civil Rights Commitments: An Assessment of Enforcement Resources and Performance," noted "growing problems" in six federal civil-rights enforcement agencies, including the Education Department's office for civil rights and the Justice Department's civil-rights division.

"Adjusting for inflation, ocr would appear to have lost nearly 33 percent of its actual spending power during the last three years," the report noted. Although the agency will receive $49.4 million in fiscal 1984, up from $44.8 million in fiscal 1983, it "could wind up with even less than this because" new budget rules allow the department to transfer ocr funds to other activities.

The report also said that the agency does not have adequate staff to carry out its obligation under federal court orders to process civil-rights complaints in a timely manner.

"But staff shortages alone do not account for ocr's failures to meet the deadlines set" under the court orders, it continued. "Agency policies and management are also important factors."

While noting "some improvements," the report said "even further improvements probably would not produce a vigorous, well-balanced, timely program of enforcement activities so long as current staff constraints persist."

The report said the policies of the Justice Department's civil-rights division favor "narrower federal civil-rights protections and remedies than those formerly pursued, and resources have been used in efforts to establish these policies through litigation and regulation.

"These legal interpretations are often unnecessarily restrictive," the report continued. "The division thus has chosen to construe federal civil- rights authority narrowly so long as no decisive ruling prevents it, rather than seeking decisive broad rulings. This reverses the general thrust of over 20 years of federal policymaking."

"To this extent," it concluded, "the commission believes the division has not only made questionable use of its own resources, but jeopardized other agencies' capacities to use their resources effectively.''

The rights agency's report was released one day after a coalition of private civil-rights groups issued a report of their own accusing the Administration of "systematically" narrowing the rights of students to nondiscriminatory treatment in education.

Incumbent Administration

The report by the Civil Rights Leadership Conference Fund, "An Oath Betrayed: The Reagan Administration's Civil Rights Enforcement Record in Education," said recent actions by the Administration "belie its stated beliefs" that public education must be strengthened for all students.

"The greatest obstacle to effective civil-rights enforcement is the incumbent Administration itself," the report said.

"Ultimately, the damage done to the machinery for implementing civil rights may be repaired by a new Administration committed to enforcing the law.

"But in the meantime, the harm inflicted by the Reagan Administration on children and their ability to learn and to develop their talents to the fullest continues, and for some may be irreparable."

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