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Legal Services Corp: Still corrupt after all these years

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted August 27, 2001

In 1972, I was introduced to a conservative activist named Howard Phillips. He spent the entire breakfast telling me tales of woe being perpetrated by the Legal Services Corporation. A conservative Democrat from Oregon, Representative Edith Green, had managed to get a series of restrictions enacted, aimed at curbing the power of this quasi-public organization. Phillips was explaining to me how the Corporation was managing to subvert the Green restrictions.

The Legal Services Corporation (or LSC) began as one of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. The idea was that the poor were not adequately represented in the legal system. "The rich can buy justice. The poor have no one to represent them," was the battle cry at the time.

In point of fact, the poor did have representation. Every lawyer was expected to do some pro bono work as part of his civic responsibilities. The poor often found themselves with high-powered legal representation. But many of the trial lawyers didn't like it. They pushed for passage of the program because they saw it as a way to get out of pro bono legal obligations.

Well, here we are almost 30 years later. Howard Phillips is still crusading against the Legal Services Corporation. For a short time, during President Richard Nixon's second term, Phillips got the chance to do something about the LSC, because it was part of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Nixon appointed Phillips to run that agency. But before Phillips could get control of the situation, Watergate intervened and Phillips was hung out to dry. Soon the LSC was spun off as a supposed independent agency.

Congress is still putting restrictions on the Corporation because over the years the LSC doesn't do a lot to represent the poor. What it does devote much of its resources to is the representation of left-wing causes. Many class action suits, challenging religion, promoting a radical lifestyle agenda, working against the American flag and so on have been filed by The Legal Services Corporation. Most recently it was the LSC which challenged the right of members of the Armed Forces overseas to vote in local elections in Texas.

The LSC is still flaunting the will of the Congress. Nothing has changed. After the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 there was some hope that the LSC might be abolished and a system of vouchers would take its place. But that hope faded when House Speaker Newt Gingrich lost the government shutdown confrontation with President Bill Clinton.

President Reagan, who hated the LSC because of his experiences with it when he was Governor of California, always zeroed it out when he submitted his budgets to Congress. But his budgets were always Dead on Arrival in the Congress. Then he tried to control the LSC by appointing strong conservatives to the board of directors. They took measures to try to control LSC activities, but the staff said "in your ear." Likewise, the elder President Bush's attempt to control the LSC via the board largely failed.

Bill Clinton appointed a board wholly sympathetic to the trial lawyers. After all, Hillary Clinton had once worked for the LSC. The weekly newspaper Human Events pointed out last week that all 11 of Clinton's appointees are still in place. The liberals in the Senate, led by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, blocked all of the elder Bush's appointees, so he had to make recess appointments to try to get control. But those appointees found themselves greatly restricted because of the symbiotic relationship between the LSC staff and the trial lawyers in the Congress.

If now President George W. Bush appoints good people to the LSC board they will likely meet the same fate as those of the elder Bush. The only real hope for doing anything to reign in the LSC, Human Events pointed out, lies in the fact that LSC critics are now in a position to do something. Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia is chairman of the relevant appropriations subcommittee and Georgia's Bob Barr is chairman of the authorizing committee. It will take a concerted effort on their part to counter the liberals in the Senate. But if they really have the political will and if President Bush will play hardball, maybe the concerns Howard Phillips expressed almost three decades ago will finally be addressed. Maybe, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. ESR

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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