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Did Bush stack the deck against civil rights?
Published: Tuesday November 6, 2007
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Using a questionable, unprecedented maneuver President Bush has installed a solid Republican majority on a supposedly bipartisan civil rights panel, leading it to abandon racial justice and civil rights cases in favor of arguing against school integration and affirmative action.

The eight-member US Commission on Civil Rights has served for half a century as the nation's watchdog against racism and discrimination. Neither party is meant to have more than four members, but Bush effectively "installed a fifth and sixth Republican on the panel in December 2004, after two commissioners, both Republicans when appointed, reregistered as independents," Charlie Savage reported in the Boston Globe Tuesday.

"I don't believe that [the law] was meant to be evaded by conveniently switching your voter registration," Commissioner Michael Yaki, one of the two remaining Democrats, told the paper.

The administration's argument? Because the Republicans all-of-a-sudden decided to 'abandon' their party, Bush's appointment of two more Republicans to the panel didn't violate the letter of the law, which only required no more than half the panel be affiliated with one party. Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel, received Justice Department approval of the maneuver.

Few noticed the unusual circumstances at the time, and presidents previously have been able to create majorities of like-minded commissioners, Savage reports, but Bush's commission has essentially made an about-face in its view of what civil rights cases to pursue.

Savage reports:

Before the changes, the agency had planned to evaluate a White House budget request for civil rights enforcement, the adequacy of college financial aid for minorities, and whether the US Census Bureau undercounts minorities, keeping nonwhite areas from their fair share of political apportionment and spending. After the appointments, the commission canceled the projects.

Instead, the commission has put out a series of reports concluding that there is little educational benefit to integrating elementary and secondary schools, calling for closer scrutiny of programs that help minorities gain admission to top law schools, and urging the government to look for ways to replace policies that help minority-owned businesses win contracts with race-neutral alternatives.

The conservative bloc has also pushed through retroactive term limits for several of its state advisory committees. As a result, some longtime traditional civil rights activists have had to leave the advisory panels, and the commission replaced several of them with conservative activists.

President Bush's re-shuffling of the deck marks at the very least an abandonment of previous president's efforts to install friendly majorities on the panel.

As Peter Shane, an Ohio State University law professor, tells Savage, Bush's move represented an unprecedented "escalation" in hardball politics. Previous presidents have established liberal and conservative 6-2 majorities on the panel, but they have done so by appointing like-minded independents, not securing party switches from sitting commissioners.

One of the commissioners who switched party affiliation, Abigail Thernstrom, told Savage that no one in the administration asked her to switch her registration, although she acknowledged discussing a pending vacancy on the commission with the White House.

"The discussion was who were the possible candidates and what did their [party] identification have to be," she told the newspaper.

Thernstrom insisted she was simply "more comfortable" as an independent because she had not been a lifelong Republican. But her actions around the time of the party switch seem to indicate a strong GOP streak, Savage reports.

"In more recent years, Thernstrom had been a consistent Republican. She voted in the March 2000 and March 2004 Republican primaries, gave $500 to the Bush-Cheney campaign in July 2004, and on Oct. 18, 2004, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling herself a Republican appointee - just nine days before she dropped her Republican registration."