• U.S.

The Law: Success or Excess?

3 minute read

The biggest victories in the Government’s fitful war on poverty have been won by 1,950 young attorneys who constitute the Office of Economic Opportunity’s legal services program. Their accomplishments range from winning rent-strike rights for tenants in Washington, D.C., to the expansion of welfare services nationwide. Such a record hardly seems to call for the firing of the program director, Terry Lenzner, and his deputy, Frank Jones. But that is exactly what happened (TIME, Nov. 30). Now the OEO legal services division is full of deepening suspicion that the firing was a clear sign the Administration intends to gut the program.

The central question is whether the program’s most visible achievements were successes or excesses. OEO Director Donald Rumsfeld, who did the firing, apparently felt that Lenzner’s activist approach failed to take account of political realities. When California legal services offices won expansion of the medical aid rolls, for instance, the state government somehow had to find an extra $200 million. Governor Ronald Reagan’s complaints could be heard clearly in Washington.

Crunch. Lenzner’s backers argue that legal rights are legal rights whatever the political realities. And they see other indications that the program is being emasculated. A year ago, it was decided that all new lawyers had to be cleared by the White House. More recently, Rumsfeld proposed to move basic responsibility for the program from Lenzner and the 850 local OEO law offices to regional OEO directors, who are all political appointees. Rumsfeld scrapped the plan in the face of harsh criticism by the American Bar Association among others, but replaced it with a variation that some A.B.A. officials think will have the same effect.

Last week some of Rumsfeld’s political fears materialized. The Senate Finance Committee voted to forbid payment of federal salaries to any lawyer who challenges U.S. welfare policies. Rumsfeld vigorously urged the Senate to reverse the committee, saying the new rule “could seriously inhibit” the program. Also last week, Rumsfeld okayed a renewal of funding for two of the most controversial programs: $1,800,000 for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and $1,000,000 for legal aid on the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Rumsfeld’s critics are still worried. The Navajo grant was accompanied by a ruling that shifts control of the local board away from representatives of the local poor. And in California, Governor Reagan can veto the CRLA money. If he does so, the telltale crunch may come when Rumsfeld decides whether or not to override the veto.

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