Amid cries of "leap-year liberals" from the left and "usurpers" from the right, the Eisenhower Administration last week presented a concrete civil rights program to Congress. After three years of talking moderation, the Administration came up with moderate proposals, dealing primarily with the undisputed constitutional right to vote.
Two of the President's requests are obviously necessary and relatively free from legal controversy. A bipartisan commission to investigate denials of the right to vote and "unwarranted" economic pressure is valuable to put the whole problem in a clear perspective. And an assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights is justified if for no other reason than the increased legal activity in that field.
The crux of the proposed legislation, however, calls for a broad extension of Federal law to protect voters through civil proceedings. Under existing statutes only harsh criminal procedure is open to the Attorney General. Such action often involves emotionally charged trials which are difficult for both sides. Because the primary aim of any civil rights law is to correct an abuse and not to punish an offender, civil proceedings should certainly be made available to the government.
The Department of Justice also asked for authority to bring suit against anyone who seeks to prevent a person from exercising his right to vote. At present, only state and local officials can be prosecuted, although attempts at intimidation and coercion often come from persons with no governmental connection. In addition, the Justice Department wants permission for either it or a private individual to go directly to a Federal court in such cases without first exhausting lengthy state procedures.
While all the legal proposals are designed simply to expedite enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment efficiently and speedily, they are under sharp attack from Southern lawmakers who are wary of any increase in Federal power. On the other side, many Northern liberals feel that the proposals are not stringent enough.
Although the Administration acted wisely in presenting a moderate program, that alone will not secure its passage. Congress, particularly the Senate, has proved the perennial block to any civil rights legislation.
If Eisenhower does not put the full weight of his prestige behind his recommendations, they will have small chance of survival. The President has demonstrated on several occasions that he can put effective pressure on Congress when he so desires. Unless his civil rights program receives the same attention that some of his budgets have, Eisenhower will have demonstrated that his program is nothing more than a token offering for the 1956 pilgrimage to the polls.