A Slight Resurgence

The 1990s began with a small but significant improvement in the situation of the legal services community. The Corporation’s appropriation, which had been stagnant for several years, began to move upward, to $328 million for FY 1991 and $350 million for FY 1992. The first Bush Administration abandoned the overt hostility to legal services and the efforts to reduce or eliminate funding and to restrict legal services advocacy. The Bush Administration instead consistently recommended that Congress continue to appropriate money for the Corporation, albeit at level funding. The first President Bush appointed a Board with a majority of legal services supporters, breaking from the tradition of the Reagan Administration. Under the leadership of Board Chairman George Wittgraff and Operations and Regulations Chairman Howard Dana, the LSC staff, led by President John O’Hara, also took a more conciliatory stance and began to work somewhat more closely with the organized bar and with the leaders of the legal services community, reducing the level of the overt hostility that had characterized the previous eight years.

The LSC Act had last been reauthorized in 1977, and that authorization had expired in 1980. Despite the fact that Congress had not reauthorized LSC, legal services funding continued to be appropriated under a waiver of the rules that ordinarily prohibited such appropriations. In the early 1990s, for the first time in many years, Congress began to consider reauthorization of the LSC Act. In the summer of 1992, the House adopted legislation reauthorizing LSC and incorporated many of the changes that supporters of the program had proposed.

However, it was not clear that the Bush Administration would support this legislation, and the Senate failed to act on the bill.

With the election of President Bill Clinton, the legal services community anticipated an end to the long period of insecurity and inadequate funding. Congress increased the LSC appropriation to $400 million for the 1994 fiscal year, the largest increase since the early years of the Corporation. Congress also prepared to take up the LSC reauthorization bill again, starting from where the House had left off.

With the majority of Congress in favor of a broad role for federally funded civil legal assistance and a supportive president in the White House, it seemed likely that a new statutory framework for the program could be enacted that would carry the legal services program through the rest of the 1990s.

Clinton’s appointees to the LSC Board, confirmed in late 1993, were uniformly supportive of a strong, well-funded LSC. They included Chairman Douglas Eakeley, former Board members F. William McCalpin and Thomas Smegal, and Hulett “Bucky” Askew who had served as Atlanta regional director and as deputy director in the Office of Field Services at LSC. The Board hired a well-known New York lawyer, Alex Forger, to be LSC president, and he assembled a number of respected legal services leaders that included Martha Bergmark and John Tull to serve in key LSC staff positions.

The new LSC administration initially focused on redesigning the monitoring system. In lieu of the old system that was focused only on compliance and was intended to intimidate programs, the new system was designed to ensure that LSC grantees both complied with Congressional mandates and regulatory requirements and provided high-quality services.

By late 1994, the Corporation had completed a new system for compliance monitoring and enforcement that relied, as did other federal agencies, on auditing by independent CPAs and ending the intrusive on-site monitoring by LSC staff and consultants of the previous decade. LSC also developed a new peer review system designed to evaluate program performance and improve quality—objectives that the Corporation had made no serious effort to achieve since 1981. Finally, together with the ABA and organizations representing legal services programs, the Corporation, under the leadership of Operation sand Regulations Committee Chair LaVeeda Morgan Battle, began an effort to revise and update all of the key LSC regulations affecting grantee operations.