WASHINGTON — SUPPORTERS say that it provides thousands of battered women and destitute older Americans with legal assistance they couldn't otherwise afford.
The Christian Coalition says it misuses taxpayer's money by helping women get divorced and pushing a liberal agenda via the courts.
Almost since its creation in 1974 by President Nixon, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has been under siege by conservatives. In 1981, President Reagan tried to kill it but had to settle for a 25 percent cut in funding.
Now Republicans are running the show in Congress. And the federal agency that provides free legal services for the poor in civil cases is fighting for its life.
The move to cut agency funding represents the latest attempt by the new Republican majority to recast the role of the federal government and ''devolve'' power to the states, as the GOP hopes to do with welfare and crime-fighting programs.
Congress ''is on the brink of breaking its compact with the American people to provide equal justice under the law,'' American Bar Association President Roberta Ramo told journalists this week.
Committees in both the House and Senate have voted to dismantle the LSC. The plan calls for cutting its $400 million appropriation (which was spent on serving 1.7 million clients last year) by at least 30 percent starting Oct. 1. By 1999, under the House Judiciary Committee plan, funding would fall to $100 million.
The money saved would be turned over to the states in lump-sum payments, or block grants. President Clinton has threatened to veto such a plan.
Helping the Republican cause are politically energized Christian conservatives. At the Christian Coalition conference here last weekend, attendees were handed flyers instructing them to call key members of Congress and urge them to vote against the LSC.
''We have a chance, once and for all, to put an end to LSC abuses such as using the courts to push a liberal agenda and expand welfare,'' the bulletin states.
The Christian right argues specifically that helping women divorce their husbands is a high priority for LSC grantees. Since divorce can throw women and children into poverty, legal services agencies are exacerbating the very problem they're trying to correct, Christian conservatives argue.
''We don't oppose divorce per se; there are many sad situations where it is necessary,'' says Brian Lopina, a Christian Coalition lobbyist. ''But not on the taxpayers' money.''
Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, a presidential contender who has curried favor with the Christian right, is the point man for the Senate bill.
Another group that tends to oppose government-funded legal services are employers in agribusiness, who are often sued by workers - and who charge that some lawyers shop around for clients and try to incite workers to sue to further a political cause.
Still, many conservatives are quick to laud LSC-subsidized agencies for taking on cases they say truly merit attention: battered women who need help getting emergency public assistance for themselves and their children, elderly people who are abused in nursing homes, families that are unlawfully evicted by landlords.
The problem comes when lawyers try to change public policy through litigation, such as efforts to challenge welfare reform in Wisconsin and New Jersey. Problems also arise through inadequate accountability, some conservatives argue. And they say private contributions - including more pro bono work from lawyers - should be summoned to fill the gap in times of federal austerity.
Legal services advocates counter that LSC was started - under a Republican president - because people without enough money to hire a lawyer were denied their legal rights in civil cases (rights that are constitutionally guaranteed in criminal cases). States and private lawyers were not filling the breach.
State funding flat
Currently, at the state level, legal-services funding is either flat, declining, or nonexistent, with only one state, Delaware, projecting an increase. Even now, say advocates of legal aid, agencies are able to take on only 20 percent of the cases they get. They further argue that private lawyers need the backup of LSC for advice in handling areas of the law in which they don't normally practice.
Legal-aid advocates hoped for help from an unlikely source: conservative Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, a critic of LSC who argues nevertheless for retaining it and imposing new restrictions on its scope. ''As a conservative, I believe in limited government, that it's better for states and localities to do something than the federal government,'' said the House Judiciary Committee member in an interview. ''But in this case, I believe it's a federal duty to ensure that the poor have these services. I'm afraid block grants won't do it.''
Mr. McCollum didn't get committee backing for his alternative bill, but says some improvements were made on the bill that did pass.
McCollum persuaded the Judiciary Committee to extend legal-services funding for four years instead of two, though by 1999 it would be down to $100 million. The House is scheduled to vote on Monday; the Senate could vote this weekend.