WASHINGTON-The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said today that President Clinton's Fiscal 1999 budget plan recognizes through badly needed increased funding the crucial importance of civil rights enforcement activities. The Commission, which among other duties monitors civil rights enforcement, has for years documented severe underfunding of Federal offices charged with enforcing civil rights laws.

Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry noted that recent national polls reveal that a majority of Americans of varying political beliefs agree on the need for effective enforcement of civil rights laws. "Adequate funding of enforcement offices would not only lessen the occurrence of discrimination but would promote faster, more certain relief for victims of discrimination," she said. "With affirmative action programs intended to counter discrimination under attack, vigorous enforcement of prohibitions against discrimination becomes even more crucial to the nation's well-being," she added.

Berry also noted that the Clinton plan, through stressing voluntary resolution of cases, would contravene high legal fees and litigation costs that have encountered criticism from segments of the public. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would be directed to double the number of job discrimination charges eligible for its mediation program.

Berry, a historian and lawyer, said that President Clinton should be applauded for his leadership in proposing the largest increase in civil rights enforcement funding in almost two decades.

In such reports as a 1983 study of the proposed Fiscal 1984 budget and in a 1995 study of "Funding Civil Rights Enforcement," the Commission has dealt directly with problems in underfunding of civil rights enforcement offices. Other reports evaluating Federal enforcement activities have attributed shortcomings in part to inadequate funding. In the 1990s, these reports included "The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988-The Enforcement Report," "Federal Title VI Enforcement to Ensure Nondiscrimination in Federally Assisted Programs," and the first volume of the current "Equal Educational Opportunity Project Series."

The proposed funding increases would in some instances be targeted for problems cited in Commission reports. For instance, the Title VI (referring to a title of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) report faulted the Justice Department's coordination of civil rights enforcement. The budget plan would give the Department's Civil Rights Division a $1 million increase specifically to improve that coordination.

President Clinton's budget proposes a total of $602 million for civil rights enforcement, a 17 percent increase from the total provided the offices in the current fiscal year. The EEOC would receive $279 million, up from the current $242 million. The Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs would receive $68 million, up from the current $62 million. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division would receive $71.6 million, up from $65 million.

Other offices would also receive increases. The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, Department of Housing and Urban Development, would receive funds to allow it to employ testers to check for housing discrimination. Testers would be persons of different races or other protected characteristics, but equal qualifications, who would apply for the same housing.

Chairperson Berry also praised the President's plan for increasing the budget of the Commission on Civil Rights to $11 million from the current $8.74 million. For three years the Commission's budget has remained fixed at $8.74 million, despite inflation and higher operating costs. Berry said that the $11 million was badly needed to carry out the Commission's broad fact-finding mandate.

Reports mentioned in this release may be obtained free from the Publications Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 624 Ninth St., N.W., Room 600, Washington, DC 20425.