Okay, it's a typical football game and a typical running back gets the ball. He accelerates quickly, ducks, weaves, finds a hole in the line and scampers, as they say, seven yards before being brought down by four massive linemen--one yard short of a first down. The play is over, but the action has not stopped. From under the pile of men comes an arm and then a hand. It's the running back! He pushes the ball out as far as he can. In football, as in life, cheating is part of the game.
That is certainly the case in politics, where the football mentality has been adopted in toto by Ronald Wilson Reagan, the one-time cinematic personification of George Gipp, a running back late of Notre Dame. It is apparently the president's view that Vince Lombardi was right: Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.
This is the philosophy the president has applied to his fight with the Legal Services Corp., which he hates and which he has unsuccessfully tried to either kill outright or starve into oblivion by cutting its budget. In every instance, the Congress thwarted his plans.
Not one to take no for an answer, the president has stacked the corporation's board with members hostile to its very purpose -- moving them around in such a manner that the Senate has neither been able to confirm nor reject them. Meanwhile, the nominees tend to their business of running legal services right into the ground while at the same time enriching themselves by charging the government consulting fees -- and in one case, demanding the government pay his membership fee for an unspecified private club. (With any luck, one that discriminates.)
The president's antipathy to Legal Services dates to his days as California governor when it fought his attempt to reduce Medicare benefits. Ever since, his loathing for this successful offshoot of the Great Society has been transparent. He is one of those who sees poverty lawyers as ranting nihilists, armed with subpoenas instead of molotov cocktails, whose ultimate weapon is the class-action suit. It is not the view, incidentally, held by the American Bar Association nor by the American public, both of whom hold the quaint notion that even poor people should have lawyers.
No one would argue that poverty lawyers have not occasionally worn their (liberal) politics on their sleeves. But the cases they have won in court have been decided not by them, but by judges and juries who reached their conclusions on the basis of the law -- not on the basis of the lawyers' politics. It was this record of achievement that the Congress was trying to protect when it made Legal Services a semi-independent corporation, insulating it somewhat from the vagaries of Washington politics.
The word "somewhat" is the operative word in the preceding sentence. It is the president, after all, who has the authority to appoint the Legal Services Corporation's board and it is the Senate that has to confirm them. But most of the presidential nominees were recess appointments--made while Congress was out of session. The Senate had a year to get to them and when it did, unofficially rejected two.
With that, the president withdrew all his nominees. By doing so, he manages to retain a board that is hostile to Legal Services -- and put it out of reach of the Senate. Temporarily, at least, the board remains in place, implementing a policy that is both contrary to the principles of poverty law and unacceptable to the Senate -- including a frontal attack on the sort of class-action suits that so enraged Reagan when he was governor of California.
The president is entitled to his own views on Legal Services. But the law says that the Senate is entitled to its views, too. By using recess appointments, the president is practicing his own version of moving the ball after the whistle has blown. In this case, he is not only violating the rules of the game, but the very conservative principles of government he says he stands for. His rhetoric notwithstanding, he is showing that he values nothing as much as victory -- or maybe, in this case, revenge.
The Gipper has moved the ball. It is up to the Senate to blow the whistle.