Administration's swipes at US legal aid program have missed -- so far

Over the past week, the pay and perks of Legal Services Corporation (LSC) board members have been assailed as overly generous by both members of Congress and the administration.

These fresh charges about the embattled program obscure a central point: Legal aid for the poor, headed for elimination by President Reagan's budget cutters, appears to have won its appeal to Congress for survival.

''The White House has failed to recognize that Congress is not going to get rid of the Legal Services Corporation,'' says a Republican congressional aide. ''The question becomes: What can we do to administratively clean it up?''

Created in 1977 by wrapping together 257 small government law programs, LSC provides free legal aid to the poor to fight civil cases such as housing or consumer disputes.

When formed, the LSC was prohibited from providing legal assistance in school desegregation cases, armed forces desertion charges, and other politically sensitive areas. Since 1977, controversial cases such as an LSC suit claiming most of Maine for Indian tribes have continued to spark spats over what the corporation should, and shouldn't, be allowed to do.

In addition, claim LSC critics, the corporation spends a lot of federal money bringing suits against the US government.

The LSC's defenders say the problems aren't that bad. An aide to a congressman who supports LSC estimates that class-action suits against the government accounted for one-half of 1 percent of LSC cases.

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan attempted to cut off state funds for Legal Services. As President, he has tried the same thing on a national level. The administration's 1982 and 1983 budgets allotted a grand sum of zero dollars to the LSC.

Congress has retaliated by trying to protect the LSC, though the corporation has suffered a 25 percent budget cut since 1981. It will receive about $240 million in 1983.

But the money has come with a few strings attached. While Congress voted to keep LSC alive, it also passed funding-bill provisions limiting government lobbying by LSC lawyers. The corporation also won't be able to represent illegal aliens, and must clear a series of new hurdles before it can bring a class-action suit on behalf of the poor against the federal government.

Supporters of the LSC say these restrictions were passed to head off those who want to dismantle the program.

''There's always been a strong amount of political pressure on Legal Services ,'' says Steven Engelberg, a Washington lawyer who served on the LSC board under President Carter. ''The restrictions were supported by people who believe in the program and are trying to defuse the heat.''

But there's more than one way to scuttle a government program, and LSC's friends say they fear President Reagan will appoint LSC board members who want to do away with the corporation.

Reagan's original appointees to the board, who were never confirmed by the Senate, turned out to be relatively moderate. At their December board meeting, a majority - led by Portland lawyer Howard Dana - turned back proposed regulations that would have placed stringent restrictions on LSC actions.

''I now have a far greater understanding of the LSC and its programs,'' says Mr. Dana. ''I believe the 4,000-odd LSC lawyers are performing an absolutely essential function in our society.''

But President Reagan this month withdrew the names of eight of his unconfirmed appointees to the LSC board. When Congress rushes home for the holidays, Reagan can invoke recess appointment powers and install a new batch of board members that can serve, unconfirmed by the Senate, until the next Congress adjourns.

''Who knows what kind of board we'll get when Reagan gets through,'' says Mr. Engelberg.

But the current lame-duck board has also drawn a lot of heat for collecting $ 156,000 in consulting fees in the first 11 months of 1982 - twice the level of fees paid the previous board - and for bestowing a relatively plush contract on the newly hired LSC president, Donald Bogard.

Both the General Accounting Office and the Office of Management and Budget are conducting official inquiries into the board's financial matters.

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