In attempting to extricate his civil rights bill from the difficulties it faces the House Judiciary Committee, the President has made himself the target of a cross-fire. Those who favor strong civil rights legislation castigate him for not supporting the measure recently reported out of a House subcommittee. The larger group who feel that the civil rights movement is somehow "going too fast" condemn him for introducing even the weaker bill he produced last June.
Mr. Kennedy is in part responsible for his own difficulties; indeed, in the best tradition of theatrical farce, his actions have redounded to his own severe disadvantage. He decided to let the House study the bill first so that the House Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee, a group conveniently free from Southerners, could work out legislation acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. Instead, the subcommittee produced a bill much stronger than the Administration's, a bill which is now thought to be too strong to pass either House. And when the President sent his brother to ask the full committee to soften the bill, the flood of publicity that accompanied his testimony, ironically, scared the group so badly that it may actually approve the bill. Liberal Congressmen who might have voted to weaken the measure in the usually secret process of committee "markup" now shrink from seeming to oppose civil rights legislation. Republicans are not about to help the President escape from what is daily becoming a more embarrassing dilemma, and the Southerners are delighted to vote for a harsh bill in committee, believing as they do that it cannot pass on the floor.
The troubles the administration has carefully worked itself into may seem comic when viewed out of perspective, but the outcome is not likely to be funny at all. The chaos in the committee has seriously harmed the chances of passing an effective civil rights bill this year; indeed it takes considerable optimism to say that there is even a chance of passing a bill at this session. This is a very unfortunate situation. For years much of America acknowledged that it had mistreated its Negro citizens, but the temper of the President, the composition of the Congress, or the feeling of the electorate stood in the way of effective legislation. It would be criminal if political bungling or squabbles within a committee killed a civil rights program this year, when meaningful legislation could be passed.
But although it now seems unlikely that a bill will be approved this session, it would be folly for the administration to give up trying to pass the strongest possible measure in the shortest possible time. And though he seems to have mishandled his relations with the Judiciary Committee, the President is right to insist that the strong subcommittee bill be watered down.
The subcommittee's bill, if it could be passed, would be far preferable to the administration's. For example, Title Three of the stronger measure, which allows the Attorney General to file suit against any form of discrimination, would be invaluable in ending segregation quickly and in challenging the questionable tactics used by Southern police against civil rights demonstrators.
But the same title was voted down by the Senate when it was included in the Civil Rights Bill of 1957; there is no reason to presume than in a year when civil rights is apparently not a popular issue with the voting public, the Senate would reverse its stand.
In both Houses of Congress the administration must count on the votes of Republicans to supply a majority for the rights bill. Even for his usual, tenuous 8-to-7 majority on the House Rules Committee, Mr. Kennedy is indebted to two liberal Southerners, who can be expected to oppose the rights measure. Thus, unless the votes of two committee Republicans can be won over, the bill may die in the hearing room, or at least be seriously delayed again. Consider that Rep. Halleck thinks some of the sections of the subcommittee's bill "would be most difficult for me to support," consider that Sen. Dirksen finds portions of even the weaker bill unpalatable, and it is easy to see why the President wants to tone the strong bill down.
It would be a shame to ask the Negro once again to accept a half-loaf measure. The Kennedy bill, however, provides more than half a loaf. It would furnish the means for desegregating public accommodations, for speeding up school integration, for ensuring the right to vote, and for facilitating the voluntary desegregation of housing and employment. It is the most sweeping civil rights measure ever presented to Congress by an American President. It ought to be passed and passed soon; afterwards the gaps it leaves can be filled.
Another, perhaps equally serious question is raised by Congress's handling of the civil rights issue. Five months ago when the President presented his plan, he called for quick action to meet an urgent problem. The bill he presented then has not reached the floor of either House, and there is little evidence that any more progress will be made before a few more months have elapsed. Civil rights, and a host of other important problems, offered the 88th Congress a splendid chance to rebut the charges that America's legislature is no longer a fit place for the transaction of America's business. But as bill after bill has become mired in committees and in subcommittees, in party wrangling or in intra-party politics, Congress has missed its chance.
It is becoming increasingly clear that no action will be taken this session on taxes, or on medical care for the aged, or on several other important administration programs; now it seems likely that civil rights, as well, will not be voted upon. In fact Congress will have a difficult time simply passing the appropriations bills or the other necessary housekeeping measures it must enact annually. The performance of the first session of the 88th Congress to date is one of the best arguments ever for immediate and effective Congressional reform.