Lawyers, Congress, and Money


The Legal Services Corporation seemed a tempting target for a Republican Congress allegedly dedicated to fiscal probity and limited government. The agency spends federal dollars on activist lawyering, supposedly for the benefit of the poor, and has long been under fire from conservatives. As former LSC Inspector General David Wilkinson wrote in a recent paper from the Capital Research Center, conservatives complain that "LSC funds are improperly used to challenge electoral redistricting plans, represent illegal aliens and drug dealers, and bring class action lawsuits against laws made by elected officials."

Still, despite a plan to phase out federal LSC funding entirely by October 1997, fiscal 1997 funding for LSC ended up at $283 million. This was the same spending as for 1996, and was supported by Republicans as well as Democrats.

Wilkinson argues in his paper "Legal Services for the Poor: Is Federal Support Necessary?" that members of Congress were fooled into believing that federal funds were supplying a vital need that everyone else was ignoring. This is a common problem with what author James Payne calls the "culture of spending": Almost all the information lawmakers get leads them to believe that every government program is absolutely indispensable.

In fact, organizations that the LSC funds get more money from other sources than they do from the LSC. Seventeen states ponied up over $35 million in new money for legal services in the past year and a half. And American lawyers, with no government funds involved, give over five times as many pro bono hours as are provided by staff attorneys for organizations funded by LSC.

The LSC reports to Congress only funding for organizations that receive direct LSC grants. It ignores non-federal funding for legal services to the poor available from many subgrantees and the more than 1,350 legal service providers that receive no LSC funding at all.

A former LSC president once advised placing information about state funding for legal services for the poor in a "footnote, for budgetary purposes in congressional presentations….I trust Congress won't inquire as to whether local jurisdictions are undertaking some of that responsibility."