President George W. Bush has some housecleaning to do now that he's moved into the White House, and more than the Oval Office needs a good scrubbing. President Bush's first task should be to review the myriad executive orders that became the law of the land with a stroke of Bill Clinton's pen over the last eight years. And none deserve greater scrutiny than those ostensibly promoting civil rights.
Presidents have often used their executive authority to champion civil rights. President Roosevelt prohibited racial and religious discrimination in federal hiring, and President Truman eliminated segregation in the armed forces through executive orders. Both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson signed executive orders banning discrimination by federal contractors and urged those who do business with the federal government to take "affirmative action" to ensure nondiscrimination.
But Bill Clinton went way beyond his predecessors, signing a total of 18 civil rights executive orders alone. Some of these were noncontroversial -- for example, extending protections to disabled federal workers similar to those that protect private or state employees. Others added new categories of protection -- for example, prohibiting federal agencies from discriminating against anyone on the basis of his or her "status as a parent," "sexual orientation," or because of "genetic information" about an employee.
There's nothing wrong with the federal government promoting a stricter standard of tolerance than we expect of private employers, so President Bush should leave these particular orders in place. But he should draw the line when it comes to those Clinton orders that promote discrimination in the name of civil rights -- as a handful certainly do -- and others that are simply nonsensical.
For example, one Clinton executive order proposes to "eliminate the under-representation of Hispanics in the federal work force." But if some groups are "under-represented" then others must be "over-represented." Blacks, for example, hold a slightly larger than proportional share of government jobs, while Hispanics hold a smaller share than their percentage of the population.
Should members of one group be fired in order to get the racial and ethnic balance 'right'? Of course not. The federal government shouldn't be obsessed with proportional representation in the first place. So why not wipe this order from the books and stick to enforcing nondiscrimination on the basis of ethnic origin?
The same goes for another Clinton order, this one promoting efforts "to improve the quality of life of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through increased participation in federal programs where they may be underserved. ... " But who says participating in federal programs improves the quality of life? The real purpose of this executive order seems to be to gin up clients for government programs. President Bush should toss it.
A third Clinton executive order that President Bush ought to rethink is one that insists that programs receiving federal assistance must make their services available in foreign languages.
The order is so broad and ill-conceived, it's unlikely it can ever be enforced. How many of the 140 or so languages spoken by people living in the United States must these programs accommodate? Should every federally assisted program be forced to have a full time, Urdu-speaking employee on hand? As long as this order stays on the books, it creates an implicit right for every non-English-speaker to demand services in the language of his choice.
But while President Bush is eliminating some of the Clinton executive orders, he might think of penning a new civil rights order of his own. He should begin by reiterating his opposition to discrimination of any sort, no matter what color its victims. Then he can get back to the original notion of affirmative action: outreach and training to close the skills deficit that still exists in some minority and poor white communities. As a candidate, George W. Bush spoke of "affirmative access." As president, he can use his executive power to direct the federal government to open up opportunities for all Americans.