U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Russell Redenbaugh resigned last week, frustrated by the commission’s inability to reform itself despite a change in leadership in December. Redenbaugh, who was blinded and lost most of his hands in an explosion at the age of 17, was the first disabled American to serve on the commission.
A political independent, he often voted with the commission’s Republicans since his appointment in 1990. HUMAN EVENTS Assistant Editor Robert Bluey spoke to Redenbaugh after he testified to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution last Thursday.
The hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution was long in coming. It was 2002 when the committee last conducted an oversight hearing on the commission. How was your testimony received and do you think the committee’s oversight will have any impact on the commission?
REDENBAUGH: The committee members said they were disappointed that I’m leaving. They find it troubling. They are really impatient with the change in leadership not moving immediately in an absolutely different way.
Was it both Republicans and Democrats expressing this sentiment?
REDENBAUGH: Yes, both.
You said in your resignation letter that you were frustrated by the commission’s “chronic mismanagement and a fatally flawed organizational structure.” Why are those problems so hard to fix?
REDENBAUGH: No organization will ever reform itself from inside. The demand for reorganization always has to come from an outside force, either because you are losing your customers or you are under an order to change. Since the problem with the commission is structural and not personalities, only Congress can change the structure.
What does Congress need to do?
REDENBAUGH: They need to rewrite the statute and specify a different structure. This commission considers itself independent in all possible ways–independent from Congress and independent from the laws of the country. It’s a commission run wild. I’m leaving because we didn’t make immediate reform and reorganization our highest priority. We’re participating in business as usual.
Are you talking about just in the recent months since there was a change in leadership?
REDENBAUGH: There was a change starting in December. And we haven’t done anything substantial on reform.
You said the commission became “a national embarrassment beyond repair.” How did that happen or has it always been dysfunctional?
REDENBAUGH: No, not always. But over the years, we lost relevance, and then under [former Chairman] Mary Frances Berry we were so ideologically paralyzed. The agency then became financially mismanaged. That we haven’t moved immediately to correct all those obvious and serious problems is an embarrassment.
Is it reluctance on the part of the staff or the commission leadership? Who were you hoping would take the lead in reforming the commission?
REDENBAUGH: I wasn’t hoping for anyone to take the lead. [Commissioner] Pete Kirsanow and I took it. We just did it.
How was that received?
REDENBAUGH: Very, very poorly.
REDENBAUGH: By some of the older commissioners. The new ones weren’t there long enough to even know or comment.
Do you think your leaving will have an adverse effect on Commissioner Kirsanow and his ability to push for reforms?
REDENBAUGH: No. I think I’ve handed him a home run. Now it’s so clear that the commissioners have to embrace these reforms. I talked to [Commissioner Michael] Yaki today. He’s all for them. He’s so new, he’s not involved in opposing them. But I think even those who oppose them would now be absolutely unwilling to stand up and say, ‘I’m not for a financial audit.’ ‘I’m against accountability.’ ‘I don’t want an inspector general.’ I think I’ve basically produced the conditions in which these reforms will be adopted unanimously. And if they’re not, the oversight committee will be furious.
Mary Frances Berry, who left office in December, was very combative and ideological. Are politics still hanging over the commission? Is that an obstacle?
REDENBAUGH: It’s always an obstacle. But [new Civil Rights Commission Chairman] Gerry Reynolds is a really good chair. He’s a conciliator. He’ll be able to bring the two sides together. But what I came to see is that the problem is structural not ideological. There’s no effective oversight. There are no consequences. The commission ignored four or five GAO audits. We haven’t filed a GPRA [Government Performance and Review Act] report since 1996. We just flout the law and there are no consequences. The only consequence Congress has is to unfund us. Congress has for far too long preferred a bad Civil Rights Commission to no commission. They haven’t had the political will to just say time’s up or game over. I think now they’ll have to rewrite the statute, put earmarks in it and institute some oversight with teeth and compliance.
Would you advocate cutting off funding?
REDENBAUGH: I advocated that the commission be ended and a new one started. Close this one down, get a clean sheet of paper, ask yourself what are the critical civil rights issues today, and when there is agreement on the critical issues, then decide what is the right structure to attack those problems. Don’t try to fix this one. End it. Don’t mend it.
What was the best thing the commission accomplished when you were serving on it?
REDENBAUGH: The best thing the commission accomplished was when they let themselves be maneuvered into a position where [Commissioner] Abby Thernstrom and I were able to insist that our dissent to the Florida election report be published as an appendix. But they repeatedly refused to publish it.
And the worst moment during your tenure?
REDENBAUGH: In an environment so conflict-filled as it was under Mary Frances Berry, it’s hard to distinguish the single-worst moment. I suppose the worst moment was when she called me a liar when she was lying. It was at a hearing on Capitol Hill and I was too gentlemanly to call her out on it.
You didn’t take a political affiliation as some of the other commissioners do. How would you describe your political ideology?
REDENBAUGH: It’s mixed or checkered. I am very comfortable with the Republican grow the economy, low marginal tax rates, enterprise, opportunity, ownership story. And very comfortable with some of the social policies that you would associate with Democrats, especially when the Democrat policy is in the direction of letting people have more freedom as opposed to telling people what to do.
Have you heard any reaction from the other commissioners? Have they suggested that they would like to see you come back?
REDENBAUGH: Yes. Gerry Reynolds called me and asked me to please reconsider, as did Pete Kirsanow. I have it as gossip that two of the commissioners are going to probably denounce me. That would suggest they don’t want me to come back. The new commissioner, [Michael] Yaki, was very friendly and said he understood what I was doing and he was sorry he wouldn’t have the chance to work with me. He thought we would see eye-to-eye on these reform issues.
Do you know who is going to denounce you?
REDENBAUGH: I’m not going to name names. If they do it, they’ll be turning themselves in.
You had people at the congressional hearing asking you reconsider even though you are not going to. How does that make you feel that they view you as valuable asset?
REDENBAUGH: It makes me feel really satisfied. The move I made was out of integrity, not out of political advantage or spite. It made me feel good–like they really respect me. I think in resigning and the way I resigned has made a huge contribution to reform and improve the commission.