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Looming Fight Over Legal Services

FOR more than a decade, the Legal Services Corporation has been the ball in a political rugby scrum. Throughout the Reagan years, conservatives tried to kick the stuffings out of the federal agency that funds lawyers for the poor in civil cases; its critics charged that the LSC was attempting to implement a liberal political agenda at taxpayer expense. Defenders of legal services in Congress fought to protect the corporation. Under President Bush, the struggle has continued. But many of the players have changed, and the issues are more complex.

In one respect, the White House is still playing political games. Last week, for the second consecutive year, Mr. Bush - just hours before Congress reconvened - named the members of the LSC's board of directors under recess-appointment powers that preclude the need for Senate confirmation. Mr. Reagan employed the same tactic to appoint directors whose aim was to demolish the corporation.

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That's clearly not Bush's objective. The men and women he has appointed to the LSC board are pragmatists and moderate conservatives who have betrayed no animosity toward legal services for the poor. Last year the board requested more money than Congress granted (in seven of the eight Reagan budgets, no funds were requested for legal services until Congress intervened).

Why, then, the recess appointments? Because confirmation hearings would be the occasion for a congressional slugfest over the LSC's future, in which Bush's nominees could become hostages.

The slugfest is likely to occur anyway, however, when a bill to reauthorize the LSC is introduced in the House, perhaps as early as next month. The measure will become the vehicle for a ``reform'' bloc led by Reps. Bill McCollum and Charles Stenholm that wants to change LSC procedures and practices. The reform movement will be resisted by lawmakers led by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusettsand Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire.

It would be misleading to portray the fight strictly as one between opponents and defenders of legal services for the poor. Some of the contentious issues cut across party lines. And, indeed, some reforms may be warranted: such as, to keep LSC lawyers out of politically sensitive redistricting litigation; to install competitive bidding for LSC grant recipients; and to improve cost-accounting by LSC lawyers.

Yet behind some of the proposed reforms still lurks an ideological animus against using tax dollars to pay poverty lawyers. Those in Congress and on the LSC board who recognize the vital need to afford poor people access to quality legal representation should be vigilant in defending against purported reforms that reflect that antipathy.

Also, while the recess appointments of directors may serve the LSC's interests in the short term, the corporation deserves to have the stability of Senate-approved directors in place for multi-year terms. As soon as possible, the White House should submit the directors' names to the Senate.

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