THE LEGAL Services Corp., created to fund local groups providing legal assistance to the poor, is not your typical federal agency. President Reagan opposed its work, did not want it reauthorized and refused for seven of his eight years to ask Congress to support it. Its Reagan-appointed board of directors even lobbied against its continuation at one time. Congress has still not gotten around to reauthorizing the corporation, but does appropriate money for it. While new directors are regularly appointed, the Senate hasn't voted on their confirmation in years.
President Bush, unlike his predecessor, is not an outspoken foe of legal services, and he has been including the corporation in his budget. But he appears reluctant to submit his nominations for directors to Senate scrutiny. Initially, he waited a year to choose a board and made do with Reagan holdovers. Last January he appointed a whole new slate, all of whom at least supported the concept of legal services for the poor. But he did it while Congress was in recess and didn't send formal nominations until July, when it was too late for hearings and confirmation. Now, he's done it again. Just hours before the new Congress met, he made new recess appointments.
What's behind this White House tactic? The administration has probably counted votes on the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee and learned that some of the more conservative members of the board wouldn't be confirmed. Recess appointments put these controversial nominees in office in the absence of Senate consent; delay keeps them there. Congress is also dragging its feet on reauthorization, for such a bill would certainly be a target for those who want to restrict the scope of the LSC's authority. Proposals to bar federally funded attorneys from suits involving, for example, redistricting or public housing evictions of drug dealers have many supporters.
It's time both branches resumed traditional patterns and put the corporation on a solid footing. The president should make formal nominations soon and let the chips fall where they may. If some candidates are not approved, replacements who are acceptable to the Senate can be found. Congress should come to grips with reauthorization, debating and settling, if necessary, some of the thorny problems about the corporation's mandate. In any event, the social and political agenda of some of the corporation's supporters is far less important than the everyday needs of the poor. Their individual problems comprise the bulk of the caseload and merit sustained support.