When House speaker Dennis Hastert sternly warned obstructionist House Republicans that Congress must and will reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, House Democrats and civil rights leaders breathed a big sigh of relief.
It may be premature. It's one thing to reauthorize the act and another thing to fully enforce it. Despite President Bush's effusive praise of the act, his administration's record on enforcement has been a mix of delay, dodges and, at times, obstructionism.
In the four decades since the act was passed, the litmus test for presidents has always been their willingness to push their Justice Departments to file tough anti-discrimination lawsuits against states and districts that flaunt federal voting laws. Bush has flunked that test.
Clinton's Justice Department filed 14 anti-discrimination lawsuits in the last two years of his last term. During the five years Bush has been in office, the Justice Department has filed half that number. One of those suits was a reverse discrimination lawsuit that alleged that White voters were discriminated against.
An early warning signal of Bush's seismic shift in the way the Justice Department dealt with voting enforcement came in 2004. He demanded that the Justice Department have sole authority to bring voter discrimination suits. This would have effectively barred private individuals and groups from bringing discrimination suits and was a radical break from decades of law and tradition.
Though the courts ruled against the Bush administration, and again upheld the right to bring private voting lawsuits, the case sent another signal that the Bush administration would play fast and loose with voting discrimination cases.
Bush's lax voting law enforcement stirred a mini-revolt in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. More than a third of the three-dozen lawyers in the division quit. That shouldn't surprise anyone. During the Reagan, Bush Sr. and, of course, Bush Jr. years, liberal activist attorneys within the Civil Rights Divisions have waged a low intensity ideological battle with the conservative political appointees that have run the division.
Meddling is still much in evidence in redistricting and voter identification cases in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. The Justice Department either approved or gave a wink and nod to state officials and courts that redrew districts to create majority Republican voting districts in Texas and Mississippi. They also gave a nod to state officials in Georgia who required that all voters show a state identification card to vote. The NAACP and civil rights groups charged that the law discriminated against the poor and minorities. A federal judge agreed and overturned the law.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez bristles at criticism that the Justice Department has politicized voting rights cases. Since 2001, he claims the department has filed more than a dozen foreign-language ballot discrimination complaints. That's laudable. Yet it does not address the thorny issue of the department's lackluster action in voting discrimination cases involving Black, Native American and Latino voters.
Congress will reauthorize the 1965 VRA for another 25 years, and Bush will sign it. But the 40-year contentious history of the act has shown the law can only be effective when presidents and their Justice Departments fully enforce it. Even after reauthorization, the Bush administration record on voting rights may still leave much to be desired.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.