VERMONT - The state advisory committee that has long served as the federal government's local "eyes and ears" on civil-rights issues was forced to disband last week as a result of newly enacted term limits on its members. Vermont now joins at least 35 other states whose civil-rights advisory committees are no longer chartered, according to outgoing committee chair Eric Sakai.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), the federal agency charged with monitoring civil-rights enforcement, adopted a 10-year term limit for members of its state advisory committees. Since 10 of Vermont's 14 committee members have served for at least a decade, their terms effectively expired on December 4, and the committee's two-year charter could not be renewed.
The Vermont Advisory Committee is one of 51 independent committees - each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia - charged with conducting investigations, holding hearings, issuing reports and making recommendations on the current status of civil rights in their states. Although the committee has no enforcement authority like that of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, its stature as a fact-finding body has enabled it to be an important catalyst for change on issues of racial, ethnic, religious and gender equality.
Vermont's outgoing committee, which includes a former governor, two former attorneys general and other prominent community leaders, is best known for two reports issued on racial harassment in Vermont's public schools. Those reports, released in 1999 and 2003, led to legislation that requires public schools to track racial harassment and hazing incidents and adopt strict policies on teaching tolerance and sensitivity. Last year, the advisory committee also issued a smaller report on racially and culturally insensitive school mascots.
Ironically, news that the Vermont Advisory Committee was being disbanded came the same week as the Vermont Department of Education's "Safe and Healthy Schools" program released new figures showing a three-year decline in student hazing and harassment based on race, gender and sexual orientation.
Ostensibly, the new federal term limits were adopted as a way of infusing the state advisory committees with new expertise and "fresh blood," according to Sakai, who can stay on the re-chartered committee for another two years but must relinquish his chairmanship. Reportedly, other state advisory committees haven't been as active as Vermont's, and included members who used their posts as resumé fillers.
Vermont's committee included two African-Americans, two Latinos and an Asian-American, giving it more diverse racial representation than the state has as a whole. According to one outgoing committee member, former Governor Philip Hoff, this current group was active despite growing resistance to its work in Washington. Hoff suspects that the recent term limits and staff and budget cuts reflect the Bush administration's lack of commitment to civil rights.
"When the Democrats are in control, [the state advisory committees] tend to be quite active. When the Republicans are in control, they tend to be inactive," Hoff says. "One would come away with the impression that Republicans don't much believe in them, and I think that's probably the fact." Hoff is skeptical that the new committee appointments will work as rigorously for civil rights as the current committee did.
His views reflect a wider sentiment among critics that the USCCR has become overly politicized in recent years. According to one national commission official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the newly enacted term limits effectively forced out one-half to two-thirds of the state advisory committee members nationwide. In the past, those posts typically were filled in a bipartisan manner, usually by soliciting input from past members as well as local and statewide advocacy groups. Today, those posts are more likely to be filled through political appointments made in Washington, D.C. As this official put it, "We used to accomplish a lot. Now, we're handcuffed."
At a time when most government agencies are growing, the federal civil-rights commission has been shrinking both in size and influence under the Bush presidency. Sakai points out that all the state advisory committees have lost much of the staff support and funding they once enjoyed. Since state committee appointments are unpaid positions, they rely heavily on the work done by experts in Washington, D.C. Vermont's staff person in Washington once handled the workload of four states. Now, she works for eight.
Many of these criticisms are reflected in a report issued in May by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The GAO found that since 2000, "The number of state advisory committee reports that have been published has declined considerably, partly because limited funding has contributed to a reduction in regional staff, travel and other committee activities, and also because of the Commission's delays in approving state advisory committee reports."
In June, state advisory committee chairs from 36 states, including Vermont, sent the national commission a "resolution of no confidence," accusing the federal government of stonewalling efforts to get state charters reinstated. According to the resolution, "Serious civil-rights issues of concern in multiple states are not being addressed as a result of delays" by the USCCR.
The results of a politicized civil-rights body have been evident in other ways. In the last six years, the federal commission has removed from its website at least 20 reports that were deemed unflattering to its Republican majority. They include a September 2004 report on the civil-rights record of the Bush administration; a July 2004 report on America's election readiness; and at least four state committee reports on the post-9/11 treatment of Arab- and Muslim-Americans.
Recently, the Vermont Advisory Committee was working on a "statement of concern" on the current state of immigrants' rights in Vermont, as a possible precursor to more in-depth hearings and recommendations. However, Sakai says that for the time being, the committee is "hanging fire" until new committee members are appointed, a new chairperson is elected, and the state charter is renewed. Based on the experiences of other states, Sakai estimates that could take as long as a year or two.
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