Chartered by Congress in 1957, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR) was conceived as a temporary watchdog and "clearinghouse" for race and discrimination issues in America. As detailed in the Commission's inaugural statute, it was to investigate and collect data on discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin." The six-member Commission, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, was to prepare a report on these issues by 1959, at which point its work would be completed and, in the words of the aforementioned statute, CCR would "cease to exist."
The Commission was never disbanded, however. In the 1980s the Reagan administration, acting in accordance with CCR's founding statute, moved to dissolve it. But the attempt met with vociferous opposition from a Democrat-dominated Congress, which alleged that the administration was hostile toward racial and ethnic minorities. The Reagan administration acquiesced to a compromise, and in 1983 the Commission was reconstituted, this time with special protections to shield it from future government attempts to dissemble it. The Commission's administrative hierarchy also underwent a redesign: It would thereafter be staffed by a bipartisan panel of eight, rather than six, commissioners: four each named by the President and by Congress, and all serving six-year terms.
A 1997 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan congressional investigative agency, concluded that "the management of the commission … showed a lack of control and coordination." When GAO researchers attempted a more thorough investigation of the operational problems, their efforts were hampered by the fact that CCR officials "reported key records lost, misplaced, or nonexistent." The Commission could not quantify how much it had spent on projects between 1993 and 1996, instead offering only a rough estimate of a figure between $33,000 and $764,000.
The GAO report was vehemently challenged by Mary Frances Berry, the CCR chairman appointed by Bill Clinton, who claimed that she and the Commission were the objects of a political smear campaign. During a July 1997 congressional hearing on the GAO report, she simply dismissed the criticism of her stewardship of the Commission as undeserving of a response. "I will not respond to some of the comments that were made by the [congressional] members [of the subcommittee] since my years of working in Washington tells me that way lies peril and I will not take the time to do it," Berry said. At the same hearing, GAO investigators reported that they had been unable to obtain answers to many of their questions about CCR's inner workings because the Commission's staff would not comply with repeated requests for information.
Two reviews conducted by the Office of Personnel Management in the 1990s produced further evidence that the Commission suffered from inept leadership. CCR disputed the reviews and refused to implement their six recommendations. Moreover, a 2003 GAO review of the Commission found that CCR had not implemented the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, which was aimed at expanding accountability among government agencies.
Under Berry's oversight, CCR became a lobbying group that regularly issued public statements, press releases, and reports deriding Republicans and conservatives while extolling Berry's policy preferences. Chief among these was Berry's uncompromising support for race-preference, or affirmative action, programs as tools for "achieving equal opportunity and promoting and attaining diversity."
In the immediate aftermath of George W. Bush's victory in the 2000 presidential election, CCR filed a 130-page investigative report alleging that "black voters were nine times more likely than white voters to have [had] their ballots rejected during the counting process. ... Disenfranchisement fell most harshly on the shoulders of African-Americans." Commission member Abigail Thernstrom took exception to the report, calling it "a total sham." When Thernstrom sought to publish her dissent along with the Commission's report, she met with resistance from the Commission's leftist members.
In 2002, CCR released a draft report titled "Beyond Percentage Plans: The Challenge of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education," which set out to prove that the end of affirmative action programs in a few states had resulted in diminished minority representation at leading universities. The report urged the restoration of all affirmative action policies and pressed for the elimination of achievement-based requirements in favor of more "holistic" methods of student evaluation. The report excluded the views of the Commission's more conservative members and offered them no opportunity to write a dissent.
CCR has regularly opposed Republican candidates for office, characterizing them as racists who are insensitive to the needs and feelings of minority communities. Its chief targets in recent years have been former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. President George W. Bush. In a report titled "Redefining Rights in America -- The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration, 2001-2004," CCR criticized the administration's disinclination to promote affirmative action; condemned it for subjecting immigrants and visitors from Arab and Middle Eastern countries to "racial profiling"; and alleged that it had been indifferent to the effects of environmental contamination in minority communities. Because of the largely unchallengeable authority then wielded by Commission Chair Mary Frances Berry, CCR released the report even after it had been rejected at the Commission's November 12, 2004 meeting, and over the sustained objections of dissenting members of the Commission.
When Berry's term as Chairman expired on December 5, 2004, President Bush replaced her with black Republican Gerald Reynolds. Berry initially refused to vacate her position, insisting inaccurately that her term had not yet been completed.
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