The Legal Services Corp. has survived any number of near-death experiences in its 36-year history. But the agency that funds civil legal services for the poor may be facing its biggest challenge yet at the hands of congressional budget cutters.

On Feb. 9, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee included a $75 million cut for the LSC in its plan for eliminating $74 billion from the federal budget. The next day, after demands for more cuts from Tea Party adherents, the committee upped its goal to $100 billion in cuts.

No details of the new cuts were offered, but the LSC director of government relations, John Constance, readily acknowledged, “It could get worse” for his agency, founded in 1974.

This year’s total budget for the corporation is $420 million, so the $75 million cut — 17% or so — would have a big impact, especially if all of it is applied before the end of 2011.

“This will really be devastating for our clients,” said Silvia Argueta, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the biggest legal aid provider in California. With the down economy, the demand for the foundation’s legal services has never been higher, she said, ranging from foreclosure advice to help in obtaining unemployment benefits and preparing domestic violence restraining orders. The agency fielded 156,000 phone inquiries last year alone. After some years of being able to replace lawyers who leave, Argueta said she might have to eliminate staff if the cuts take effect. The LSC provides $9.3 million of its $19.3 million annual budget.

Argueta said she is already marshaling legal aid supporters in the Los Angeles area to fight the cuts, including her board members from major L.A. law firms.

Back in Washington, the corporation is also garnering support for the budget battle to come. Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, which is a longtime supporter of the LSC, said in a written statement, “Hard choices loom as to priorities for federal spending, but let’s be smart about where reductions are made.…Slashing funds that keep working class and poor people from falling into a legal and financial tailspin is not the right decision in this economy.”

LSC Chairman John Levi and past Chair­man Frank Strickland also issued a statement lamenting the cuts, which they said would leave “the flame of equal justice…flickering far too low. We do not know how a budget cut of this magnitude allows us to keep faith with the founding values of our great country.”

At Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine, Executive Director Nan Heald knows for certain that cuts of the magnitude under discussion will mean “severe reductions” in her ability to help needy clients — 10,000 of whom sought help last year. Her agency had added new services, both walk-in and online, to help with foreclosures and with the special needs of veterans and military families. Those will have to be cut back, Heald said.

The attack on LSC funding comes after an unusual lull of three years, during which its budget actually increased. But in previous years, it was an easy target for budget cutters, especially members of Congress who were suspicious that the agency was funding politically or socially driven litigation.

That image is outdated, says LSC government affairs director Constance, after years of improved oversight and tightened rules about what kinds of cases funded agencies can and cannot pursue.

So why did the cuts pop up on this year’s target list? “I think we are there for historical reasons, not current reasons,” Constance said. New members of Congress in particular may have an old impression of the agency, he said, and “may not be familiar with the many services we provide in their own districts.”

The initial announcement of the cuts by Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) offered no reason that was specific to LSC or any other agency. His statement did acknowledge that “every dollar we cut has a constituency, an industry, an association, and individual citizens who will disagree with us. But with this [continuing resolution,] we will respond to the millions of Americans who have called on this Congress to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.”

Tony Mauro can be contacted at