EVEN OPPONENTS of the administration's efforts to abolish the Legal Services Corporation must give the administration credit for ingenuity. The strategic attacks and counterattacks, the creative use of the recess appointment power and the bold regulatory assaults at the last minute illustrate the determination and resolve of the corporation's foes. But while these efforts have confused and frustrated backers of legal services for the poor, they have not succeeded in convincing Congress or the public that we can do without this program.
The courts have guaranteed free legal services to the indigent in criminal, but not civil cases. Until the creation of the corporation in 1974, attorneys to represent those who could not afford to pay were provided by volunteers, often through local legal aid societies. The corporation was created to supplement this fragile and fragmented system with a permanent corps of federally paid lawyers, based in neighborhoods, who could assist the poor. In some areas of the country, most notably California, the legal services lawyers went far beyond providing standard individual legal services and brought class action suits on behalf of the poor against businesses and state and local governments. The man who was then governor of California -- and feeling the brunt of much of this activity--is now president of the United States, and he wants to abolish the Legal Services Corporation altogether.
Because Congress will not go along, and stubbornly keeps appropriating money for the corporation's work, another lateral attack was devised: load up the corporation's board with those who can be counted on to subvert its work. That's what the president thought he had done, but last week he withdrew eight nominations--the board has 11 members -- that have not yet been confirmed by the Senate and indicated some of them would be replaced by individuals who are even more zealous in opposition to the program. The president can make a new set of recess appointments as soon as Congress adjourns, and these people will continue to serve, even though unconfirmed by the Senate, until the next Congress adjourns. Thus, even a board that has not a single member who has been confirmed can continue to make decisions binding on the corporation.
This week, four proposed regulations will come before the current lame-duck board of directors. They would, if adopted, prohibit class actions, the most efficient and effective means of vindicating the rights of large numbers of citizens, and severely hamper the work of poverty lawyers in a number of other ways.
Perhaps it is asking too much of such an avowed foe of the Legal Services program, but the president could mend some fences with Congress and help the poor in a time when they need all the help they can get by putting an end to all this fooling around with the program. Accept the fact that Congress will not let it die, find some people who are conservatives but who see merit in it, and put them in charge. There is broad support in Congress for some changes that would clarify the rules for class actions and set guidelines for this important work. But there is also a determination to save the program, because it is truly worth saving. Killing it by bits and pieces, regulations and recess apppointees just won't work. There's a real need for poverty lawyers out there in a country savaged by recession and unemployment, and all who are concerned about the fate of those who suffer will not let the program die.
As a footnote to the above, we give you a quotation from Rep. Caldwell Butler, the Virginia Republican who is retiring this year: "It sounds like the first thing they did was put all four feet and a snout in the trough."
Mr. Butler was speaking of the administration's appointees to the Legal Services board and the consulting fees they have billed the government. Chairman-designate William Harvey, for example, has submitted $25,028 in consulting bills for the first 11 months of this year. Overall, the 11-member board collected $156,201 in consulting fees through November. Members are entitled, we should add, to reimbursement for expenses and consulting fees for the time they work. But previous members billed the government far, far less.
Do these men have to give the impression that they're getting rich in the process of cutting programs for the poor?