THE SENATE Labor and Human Resources Committee held hearings last week on the Legal Services Corporation and produced a series of horror stories. One involved a grant to a "Citizens League" in Wadley, Ga., headed by a candidate for mayor in which the money was used for door-to-door canvassing and for producing and distributing leaflets under the guise of citizenship education. Another grant was made to a St. Louis group and used to organize and train community activists to lobby against proposed federal budget cuts. Supporters of the legal services program say that these are old stories and that mistakes have been corrected. But there is some concern that reviving these tales will jeopardize the reauthorization of the corporation.
The legal services program has been operating against the wishes of the Reagan administration and without an authorization bill for the last three years. The administration wants to abolish the corporation, but Congress, reflecting, we believe, a broad public sentiment, has continued to appropriate funds for the program. Most people can see the justice of providing counsel to those who need but cannot afford it. We picture a young, shirt-sleeved neighborhood legal services attorney advising the aged widow in a dispute with a landlord or helping an unemployed worker deal with his creditors. On the other hand, we know what these lawyers should not be doing. They should not be using federal funds to support candidates for office and they should not be organizing grass-roots efforts to lobby on public policy questions.
Between these two types of activities lies the fuzzy area of direct contacts with lawmakers. It is certainly appropriate for legal services lawyers to respond to requests for information and advice made by congressional committees or state and local legislatures. It is also right that they be allowed to petition Congress about appropriations and reauthorization of the corporation itself. But suppose a client who has been denied food stamps or unemployment benefits wants the law changed so that he will become eligible. What if a client wants a moratorium on nuclear plant construction because one is about to be built in his neighborhood? Would lobbying in such cases be a legitimate legal representation of a poor client or would it be the kind of political activity that critics of the program deplore?
These are difficult distinctions to grapple with, draft and enact into law. But it is heartening that the debate has moved away from the continued existence of the legal services program and onto this relatively narrow issue. Lobbying guidelines can be developed that will reassure critics of the program and help the corporation avoid controversy in the future. It's worth doing in the interest of passing a reauthorization bill that will give this important program stability and long-term support.