Rights Bill Dies As Senate Moves To End Session

By James Hertling — October 10, 1984 5 min read
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Washington--The civil-rights bill fashioned to nullify the U.S. Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of the federal law barring sex discrimination in education died in the Republican-controlled Senate last week, the victim of a procedural morass and successful delay tactics by its opponents.

Legal experts said the effect of the bill’s defeat on school-related civil-rights complaints was uncertain, but federal civil-rights officials have already indicated that only impact aid would be viewed as triggering coverage for an entire school district under the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

Last week’s delay tactics in the Senate caused the collapse of the bipartisan coalition that had supported the proposed civil-rights act of 1984. Its main Republican sponsor, Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, accepted a gop-sponsored compromise, which was rejected by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the bill’s leading Democratic sponsor. Objections by Senator Kennedy and others prevented the compromise from reaching the Senate floor.

The Senate voted mainly along party lines to kill the original civil-rights measure, a move offered by Senator Packwood to try to clear the way for the compromise. The bill had been attached as a rider to the emergency money bill for fiscal 1985 that had to be passed by last Thursday to keep the Education Department and most other government agencies operating. The controversy over the civil-rights measure stalled consideration of the money bill. (See story on page 13.)

House leaders announced last Friday that the civil-rights bill would be reintroduced as HR 1 when the 99th Congress convenes next year.

Response to Court Ruling

In its initial form, the bill would have effectively reversed the Court’s ruling last February, in Grove City College v. Bell, that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 applies only to “programs or activities” that receive federal funds directly, not to entire educational institutions. Language similar to Title IX’s is found in antidiscrimination laws regarding age, race, and handicap.

Opponents of the measure, led by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, argued that it would have imposed an excessive regulatory burden on state and local governments and private institutions.

The House had overwhelmingly passed the bill in June.

Procedural Roadblocks

The Senate on Sept. 27 had voted to accept the civil-rights bill as an amendment to the funding measure, known as a continuing resolution. In response, more than 300 amendments were offered--many by Senator Hatch--to delay consideration of the civil-rights measure, which the Reagan Administration and conservative Republicans strongly opposed.

In a rare Saturday session on Sept. 29, the Senate voted 92-4 to limit debate on the civil-rights amendment. This was seen by observers as a victory for the civil-rights backers since it foreclosed the possibility of a filibuster by opponents.

But for the rest of Saturday and through Monday, senators began to “plod through” the Hatch amendments, as Senator Packwood put it.

Senator Packwood, an aide said, began to consider seriously a compromise measure that weekend3when “he saw real procedural problems.”

Packwood Yields

Finally, Senator Packwood told Senate colleagues last Tuesday afternoon that, “with a heavy heart,” he would move to kill the bill because of Senator Hatch’s delay tactics.

Senator Kennedy responded passionately to his co-sponsor’s call. “If we table this particular amendment, it will be a shameful day for this body,” he said on the floor.

After several hours of negotiations Tuesday afternoon and with the deadline for passing the funding bill approaching, Senator Packwood emerged with the Republican-drafted compromise, which quickly turned the debate into a partisan affair.

Referring to his acceptance of the compromise, Senator Packwood told reporters he “would rather have something than nothing,” and he criticized Democrats’ refusal to compromise as an election-year political gesture.

Compromise Detailed

According to Senator Packwood, the compromise would have ensured that Title IX would be applied to schools and colleges on an institutionwide basis and would have left untouched the language of laws barring discrimination on the basis of age, handicap, and race.

For these statutes, both sides “would like to say that Grove City never happened,” leaving them in a legal limbo, Senator Packwood said during a press conference on Oct. 2.

However, proponents of the original bill criticized the compromise, saying it “would establish an unacceptable double standard for nondiscrimination,” in Senator Kennedy’s words.

Consequences Said Unclear

Lawyers for education groups said the effect on elementary and secondary schools of the measure’s failure remains unclear.

William L. Taylor, a civil-rights lawyer, said that “there should not be any immediate impact that would dilute the protections of law at the elementary and secondary level.” Mr. Taylor represented the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights--which lobbied for the original civil-rights bill--in the Senate negotiations last week.

Because of the general federal aid that school districts receive, schools in those districts “will be obligated not to discriminate” on the basis of sex, race, or handicap, said Mr. Taylor, who is the director of the Center for National Policy Review at Catholic University.

Ivan B. Gluckman, director of legal and legislative services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, warned that if the Reagan Administration wants “to pull back from enforcement [of civil-rights laws], they have justification for doing that” in the absence of Congressional action to nullify the Supreme Court’s decision.

A federal court case brought by a coalition of women’s groups may clarify the Education Department’s obligations regarding civil-rights enforcement.

The suit, in its preliminary stages in federal district court for the Dis-trict of Columbia, has already led the department’s office for civil rights to issue Title IX guidelines, asserted Marcia Greenberger, a staff attorney with the National Women’s Law Center. (See Education Week, Sept. 26, 1984.)

According to the “initial guidance” sent July 31 by Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary for civil rights, to the department’s 10 regional offices, only impact aid constitutes non-earmarked federal aid that immediately triggers institutionwide coverage under the four civil-rights laws affected by the Court’s decision.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as Rights Bill Dies As Senate Moves To End Session


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