THE LEGAL SERVICES Corp. won a victory of sorts last week when the House of Representatives voted to restore $109 million in funding that the Appropriations Committee had decided to strip away. The battle over LSC's budget has become an annual ritual in which House appropriators slash huge sums from the corporation's funding and then the full House restores some or all of those funds. While the ritual ends each year with LSC's continuing to exist, it produces an LSC that is funded with almost no reference to the actual needs of poor people for the legal services that it provides. Were it translated into real terms, the LSC's victory this year consisted of the House's voting to slash its budget by only $50 million rather than $159 million. Some victory.

The longer-term picture is even more bleak. LSC's budget figures for this year are equivalent to the funding level for 1980 and 25 percent below that of 1995. While local legal aid societies have had some success in making up for lost federal funds with money from other sources, current funding levels do not come close to the level required to provide lawyers for those cases in which poor people qualify.

The LSC, to be sure, has not been its own best advocate this year. A General Accounting Office report suggested that it was overreporting its caseload, a fact that LSC officials have attributed to a series of bookkeeping errors but that Republicans seized upon to justify further cuts.

More money will also likely be restored in the negotiations yet to come. President Clinton has requested a modest $40 million increase in the LSC's $300 million current budget. The Senate has voted, meanwhile, to maintain current funding. This fight is important, but it is also important to realize that the terms of this debate are bounded not by any rational assessment of needs but by the culture-war issue that LSC funding has become.

Many conservatives simply disbelieve in the project or believe that the LSC is a taxpayer-funded tool of liberal activists. The compromise that has emerged is one in which the LSC continues to exist, but precariously, and with funding that is inadequate for achieving the policy goals it was created for. At some point Congress will need to make the decision that the LSC is a program to which it is committed. That means funding it adequately and relieving it of the destructive burden of being threatened each year with extinction.