House Republicans took over Capitol Hill determined to slash and burn a long list of federal programs that they saw as wasteful, especially if these programs smacked of Big Government. High on their hit list was the Legal Services Corp.
Even though Republican President Richard Nixon initiated Legal Services 30 years ago to assist low-income citizens who otherwise would not have their day in court, the GOP has tried since then to dismantle the program. Many House freshmen came to Washington on a pledge to do just that.
In 1995, Legal Services had a budget of $400-million, but Congress initially cut that amount to $278-million. Since then, however, House members, including Republicans, up for re-election have been reading the polls showing that most voters believe that killing Legal Services would be unfair and mean-spirited. On Tuesday, the same House voted 247-179 to restore $109-million to the agency.
Returning some of the funding is a good move, but the GOP still has handed the agency a crippling blow by prohibiting lawyers from collecting fees. This is a real setback to the rights of the poor because fees often are awarded in housing, family relations, civil rights, job discrimination and Social Security cases _ the very cases poor people most often face. Republicans further weakened Legal Services by barring the agency's lawyers from filing class-action lawsuits.
Instead of being a hotbed of ultraliberalism, the corporation spends much of its time handling routine matters of survival and human dignity and urging powerful segments of society and government to be fair to the less fortunate. Most of the cases involve helping in divorce cases where reconciliation is impossible; keeping problem children in school; preventing unfair evictions and repossessions; demanding unemployment benefits; or retrieving security deposits.
Although House Republicans took away some of Legal Services' power, they have abandoned their foolish notion of making the agency extinct. All American citizens, including the poor, deserve competent representation in the courts.