Republican Congressman from Illinois who later was LSC board member and then interim LSC president.
Oral history details
|Date of interview:||Jul 30, 2002|
|Where relates to:||Illinois|
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
Georgetown University Law Center
National Equal Justice Library Oral History
Interview with John Erlenborn
Interviewer: Don Saunders
July 30, 2002
Don Saunders: [I’m Don Saunders. I direct] the civil legal services division of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. This morning we are in the rare books room of the National Equal Justice Library here in Washington and it is my distinct pleasure to interview former Congressman John Erlenborn from Illinois. Mr. Erlenborn’s career has spanned the legal services movement at the federal level throughout its history in this country. John was a member of Congress from 1965 through 1984, critical years in both OEO legal services and development of the Legal Services Act and LSC. John subsequent to that has been appointed by two presidents to the LSC board, former President Bush in 1989 and President Bill Clinton in 1996. John has a great deal of experience with legal service and we’re very happy today that he is going to share his recollections of those experiences with us. Good morning John. Before we begin with some of your recollections about the early days in the Congress and OEO and legal services issues tell us a bit about your early career prior to your becoming a member of Congress.
John Erlenborn: Well I’m from Illinois and I got my legal education at Loyola in Chicago in the late 40s and in 1950 I was admitted to the Illinois bar and I was practicing law for a year with a small law firm with two lawyers, two partners and I was the one associate. But after a year then I was given an opportunity to join the state’s attorney staff so I worked as an assistant state’s attorney for about two years and then I left and just I was having trouble with this was able to live on an income from a law practice a small law practice which was building when I had an opportunity to run for the state legislature and I was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1956. I was in the legislature for 8 years and in 1964 I ran for Congress, was elected and served 20 years.
Don Saunders: During your time in Congress when did you first become familiar with legal services and OEO, how were you involved in those kinds of issues?
John Erlenborn: Well the OEO was controversial as most people who were living at that time and watching what was going on they knew there was a lot of controversy over the war on poverty and it didn’t really come into my arena until the early 1960s, got that wrong again didn’t I, editing. 1960s
Don Saunders: Late 60s early 70s.
John Erlenborn: Yeah early 70s. But at that time there was a new president, President Nixon and he wanted to disband the OEO which he did with the help of Don Rumsfeld by the way who left Congress, left the House of Representatives to head the OEO with the charter to disband it and get rid of its parts. There were two parts of OEO thought that were very popular and I think from a political standpoint difficult to dispense with and that was Head Start and Legal Services. So the jurisdiction of the legislation to create a corporation to house the Legal Services Corporation that jurisdiction was in two parts. One went to the Judiciary Committee obviously this was legal services the Judicial Committee had to be involved and properly was. But the OEO was in the jurisdiction of the Education and Labor Committee and I was one of the senior Republican members of that committee and got involved in the process of creating the corporation by the passage of legislation.
Don Saunders: And you and Congressman Steiger were sort of the leading Republicans on that committee in terms of handling legal services issues. If you could just for the historical component here share a few of your memories of Bill Steiger, what he meant, what issues he cared about and what he did with you in those early days of the Legal Services Act.
John Erlenborn: First of all Bill Steiger was a young man when he entered Congress in the House of Representatives he was one of the youngest ever to be elected and qualified to take the seat. So he was in his mid 20s when he entered Congress from Wisconsin. Bill is a very sharp young man, not a lawyer, but steeped in good thoughts and motivated in a possibly more liberal way than many of the Republicans in the Congress. But Bill and I became very good friends with a number of other members of the House. He unfortunately passed away quietly in his sleep a few years after the legal services legislation was enacted but he was a real driving force not just in that instance but in many of the issues before the Congress particularly those that came to our Education and Labor Committee.
Don Saunders: Now in ’71 and sort of the beginning effort as you suggested to move legal services out of OEO and into a separate organization it was the Mondale Steiger bill which passed in a form a little bit different than introduced but that bill was vetoed by President Nixon in 1973. It was really in 1974 that the bill that became the Legal Services Act Corporation Act passed the Congress and you were right there at the formative stages. Share with us some of your recollections about that bill and your role in getting it passed.
John Erlenborn: Well the one that was vetoed I believe was vetoed because the president felt that the chief executive he was president then but others in the future he was thinking of too, the chief executive, the president was not given sufficient control over deciding who was going to be on the board and therefore championing the cause and taking the authority of the corporation and building something new so I think that is why the veto. The president I think did feel that politically it was a good idea to have the Legal Services Corporation and as a matter of fact I think as an attorney he made statements as to how important the Legal Services Corporation would be. So that’s what we were working on there on our committee, Bill and I both being on the Education and Labor Committee.
Don Saunders: I assume the Judiciary Committee was certainly involved in a number of things related to the president at that point that the Education and Labor Committee really was the committee that hammered out the details of the legislation and really saw it through, is that our memory of it? What was the Judiciary’s role in all of it?
John Erlenborn: the Judiciary Committee I think may have been distracted, there was something that involved the president going on at that time and that was I wouldn’t say kept the Judiciary Committee from doing the job but I think that they were more interested in impeachment which was the thing that had everybody wondering what was going to happen.
Don Saunders: So Education and Labor addressed it Carl Perkins was the chairman of the committee and who do you recall from the Democratic side on that committee sort of leading the charge for the Legal Services Corporation?
John Erlenborn: Well just at the moment I really don’t recall.
Don Saunders: As the bill worked its way through the committee and went to the floor you were the Republican floor leader for the debate is that correct.
John Erlenborn: Correct. I outranked Bill Steiger because I had been on the committee longer than he so I was not the ranking Republican but I was high on the seniority of the Republicans on the committee.
Don Saunders: And do you recall controversies around the bill, was it an easy bill I know you were leading the fight for ERISA at that point you were really the leader on that, how did the legal services bill move?
John Erlenborn: My recollection is hazy frankly. I don’t think that it was an easy task. In fact I know Terry Lenzner was coming in and talking to us quite often and when he showed up we knew there were some things that were in the works that he felt we ought to be aware of and working either to help get amendments passed or to fight to keep them from being adopted.
Don Saunders: Terry Lenzner was the head under Don Rumsfeld of OEO Legal Services and I remember you were fighting issues such as amendments to prohibit legal services attorneys from being involved cases where the government was a party, where there were several controversies that came back to Washington from California, the CRLA vetoed by then Governor Reagan those were all sort of called up in the fight on the Hill but it still passed by a fairly comfortable margin.
John Erlenborn: Right and it was the last bill that President Reagan signed into law, excuse me President Nixon signed into law before his resignation.
Don Saunders: And interestingly enough the ERISA bill which was working its way through was the first bill that Jerry Ford signed as president. You were certainly there during the transition.
John Erlenborn: Correct.
Don Saunders: It must have been a very busy time for you. I suppose in those final days when the bill was signed into law the administration was really so distracted that probably there wasn’t much attention being paid to legislation there are no stories about Mr. Nixon signing this bill at the last minute I don’t suppose.
John Erlenborn: I think you’re right about that. Let me just give you an example. During that period of time I received an invitation from the White House to join the president on the president’s yacht for dinner and he had a number I don’t recall how many but usually on those trips we would have or he would have as his guests oh six or eight members of both the House and the Senate. It worked out that that particular day we had a bill on the floor of the House that went on or the debate went on much longer than expected. When it came time to go and get on the presidential yacht they were still working in the House. I thought it was more important to go and have dinner with President Nixon and most of the other members who had been invited thought otherwise so I was almost alone. I think there were only three of us, one Senator and another House member on this particular dinner cruise. But in talking with us at that time President Nixon was very outgoing and had a lot to say but I noted at one point when he was talking about the president of Egypt he came up with the name of the prior president rather than the current president so I think he was somewhat distracted.
Don Saunders: I think we would all like to delve into the details of that evening but it’s probably beyond the scope of our cocktails and 50-year old Ballentine scotch. Well then I suppose the jurisdiction of LSC shifted over to Judiciary and you were less responsible than at Labor where you became the ranking . . . member but I’m sure you followed the roller coaster ride of expansion during the Carter years and then President Reagan came to Washington with memories of CRLA and Ed Meese was sort of designated to once again get rid of LSC. Are there any recollections you have of those bitter fights in the early 80s because you certainly relived them a decade or so later.
John Erlenborn: I don’t have too many recollections of those days frankly I know that it continued to be controversial. It was in the initiation when the bill was passed and created the corporation continued to be controversial and of course that almost culminated when Mrs. I am at loss for the names this when Mrs. Clinton was chair of the board and the corporation was very much into having grand law suits to change the law rather than taking care of the needs of individuals which most of us thought was the principal job of the corporation.
Don Saunders: You think about President Nixon, Senator Clinton, Ronald Reagan I mean this small little program has been played out with many of us certainly the leading actors in the latter part of the last century. You left the Congress in 1984 voluntarily absolutely to pursue other interests and how in the world did you get driven back into the battle for legal services for the poor in this country.
John Erlenborn: Well it came as a kind of surprise to me. I at that time and continue to serve on the board of directors of Custodial Trust Company which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bear Stearns and I recall attending a board meeting in New York at the Bear Stearns offices and during the board meeting they sent a note in saying that there was somebody on the phone who would like to talk to me, it was very important so I went out and answered the phone. And it was Warren Rudman, Warren at that time was not in the Senate he was practicing law here in Washington but if there was ever anyone who had an important role in legal services being protected and fostered and so forth Warren Rudman certainly takes the cake there. But Warren said there was an opening on the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation and would I consent to take it. And my response was Warren I thought we were friends why would you want to do this to me. Because it was really highly controversial at that time. About half of the board was dedicated to destroying the corporation and the other half just as dedicated to protecting the corporation and anyhow he talked me into it. And I got into the middle of that mess. That board of directors when they met it was almost bloodshed every time. It was nasty and was a very uncomfortable time to be on the board but I was on for about year when the Farm Bureau Federation decided that they wanted the corporation’s board of directors to endorse legislation that would take some of the authority of the corporation away and I was approached by a representative of the Farm Bureau Federation and I told her that I just wasn’t going to be voting on this one way or another, it had been pointed out that the law firm I was with at that time was a labor law firm and again very much into agricultural procedures labor and so we had a lot of interest a lot of our law practice involved the kind of legislation that the Farm Bureau was talking about. Well that didn’t satisfy the Farm Bureau and so their representative sent out letters to our clients, I don’t know how she got the list but sent out letters to our clients saying we don’t know why you would be using Syfarth Shaw as your lawyers when one of the partners in the firm is working against you and against the wishes of the farmer and agricultural producer members of the Farm Bureau. And I was pretty well supported by my law firm until quite a few of the people who had been contacted by the Farm Bureau who were our clients decided that they were going to talk to the chairman of the board of our firm and it became uncomfortable. The other members of the firm, the other partners began to feel a little bit nervous about the situation and I decided that I would resign my seat on the board because it just wasn’t worth it to go through that and to put my partners through it, that was the most important thing.
Don Saunders: I think through the years that the greatest controversy in the work of legal aid lawyers who had been around representing agricultural workers and obviously that led to a lot of what CRLA fight was about and the Reagan fights and obviously yours is a very public and difficult follow up to that kind of controversy. Well then the pendulum swings back in 1992 former chair of the board Hillary Clinton is First Lady and Bill Clinton is appointing a board at a time of great hope and energy in the legal services community and you for some reason come back to this battle. How did you get after being appointed by former President Bush how did you somehow manage the deft political maneuver of being appointed by President Clinton?
John Erlenborn: Well again some of the friends of legal services contacted me and said there was this opening as a matter of fact a couple of the Republican members of the board came and invited me for lunch and we talked about this and they convinced me it was a good time to back on the board. And so I decided having been kind of forced off earlier I wanted to go back on and I was no longer practicing law, I was no longer with the law firm and I knew they couldn’t pull that trick on me again of getting our clients talking to the firm.
Don Saunders: And of all your involvement in the movement over the years I think clearly the most important part has been this time in your tenure on the board once again the pendulum shifted very dramatically in 1995 with the election of Newt Gingrich as Speaker with determined efforts one of the Contract with America’s point was the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation and we were put on a quote glide path to zero in the House of Representatives those of us who were worked the Congress around those years were very concerned about whether or not there would even be a Legal Services Corporation after around the time you came on. I think it’s generally recognized that your leadership and that of John McKay had a lot to do with getting the corporation through those years. Tell us about the Gingrich years the 104th Congress. What were you doing?
John Erlenborn: Well first of all when I went back on the board my name had been sent up to the Senate for confirmation but they had not acted on it yet. When Doug Eakeley chair of our board of directors LSC invited me to their board meeting that was coming up and I attended at noon time there was a break to go to get a sandwich and talk informally and Doug said to me John what would you do what do you think we can do to aid in protecting the Legal Services Corporation and keeping it active. And I said well I tell you one thing these new restrictions the Congress is about to enact and we knew they were going to go through and anybody who was aware of the content those restrictions were terribly important. I said one thing you want to do is not fight the Congress and try to go to court and knock out any of these restrictions that had been enacted by the Congress. And Doug said that’s our exactly our feeling too. We had a board of 11 members, six were Democrats, five Republicans and as I told the appropriations subcommittee that handled our bill after that when I joined the board I could not tell who was Democrat and who was Republican and who was liberal who was conservative we were all working together. And they also they surprised me when I told them what they ought to do is to implement the restrictions and Doug said oh we already have the regulations drafted all we have to do is enact them after the Congress does pass the bill with the restrictions in it. And that started something that continued on under President McKay. John McKay is a young and at that time a little bit younger Republican conservative from the state of Washington and he was chosen by the board and I think one way you might describe this was he looked like, sounded like and acted like the kind of conservatives who were giving us a hard time on the Hill. Well I went with John on many occasions up to talk to these members of Congress and I think we changed some thinking. We had a very active program of going on the Hill talking not just to those we wanted to convert but also those who had been our supporters to see that they continue to be. So we had that first reduction about one-third of the total budget was rejected by the appropriations committee and the Congress as a whole. But it turned around right after that and I think it was John McKay’s efforts and his believability and I helped by being able to get in to see members having known so many of them that were involved.
Don Saunders: As I recall that political effort we were involved in it as well was really focusing on a core of the moderate Republican members of the House and those people I think stand with LSC to this day.
John Erlenborn: That’s correct. There is bipartisan support and there is more bipartisan support today than there was three or four or five years ago.
Don Saunders: Then following through that and continuing to be I think the leader on the Hill fight at least from the board level you were vice chair of the board for a number of years, you then became president a little over a year ago at a time of transition yet again in this program. You remained on the board but you did decide to serve as president of the corporation again upon the call when your help was needed. What made you do that?
John Erlenborn: Well when John McKay became president he promised he would work in that position for a year. At the end of the year we extended with his consent and then at the end of the extended year we had a third year. At the time that you are referring back in the spring of 2001 John was hoping to get an appointment from the new administration, the Bush administration and as a matter of fact he was in line to get that and so he gave his report to us that he thought he should get off the legal services as president, he had enjoyed and did a good job in the years that he served but he was looking forward to taking this position which he finally got as U.S. Attorney out in the state of Washington. That left us with a board that was composed of all hold-overs. We had three-year terms and I don’t think there was anyone on the board I’m the youngest on the board. I was on for quite a number of years and three years more than the other members of the board were on. And we were looking forward to a new board to be nominated by the new President Bush and when they came in we expected that most if not all of the current members of the board would go off. The members of the board the ones who choose the president so it was one day I got a call we were going to have a number of the members of the board not at an official meeting just let’s talk and they said they didn’t want to start a presidential search and choose a president when we have a new board coming in it really ought to be the prerogative of the new board of directors but they had to have somebody who would be president until the new board was finally named, confirmed and had a chance to do a presidential search. So they all looked at me. I suppose one thing is I lived closer to the office than anyone else. But they talked me into it and in fact I kind of looked forward to doing it. I had never been a chief executive. It’s a much different job I can tell you now with my years experience than being a member of a legislature where you have to convince a majority of the members of the committee or of the House or the Senate and it’s one that I’ve enjoyed doing. But I went home from that meeting and I told my wife what I had done, I hadn’t consulted her and had agreed to take presidency until the new board had acted. And what I told my wife that she said why in the world would you want to do that. I said because I thought it would look good on my resume.
Don Saunders: And you didn’t expect a long tenure on this job did you John.
John Erlenborn: No I didn’t. At the time that I took this job back in July 1 of last year a number of people asked me how long I thought that I would be in that position I said oh anywhere from six months to a year. Currently people ask me how long I think I will be in the position and I continue to say six months or a year. And who knows where the next step in this saga may take us.
Don Saunders: Well share with us now that you have been a member of the longest serving board continuing to serve board in the history of the corporation what are some of the initiatives you feel particularly proud of either as a board member or as president and what are some of the controversies you still have to manage in your position.
John Erlenborn: Well first of all let me say the things that have occurred in the past several years John McKay was the one that I think was most responsible for these things having been done and I think they have been really great for legal services and other service providers even those that are not funded by LSC. State planning was the first thing. State planning I think was a bit controversial but I think it was one of the best steps for having a rational approach to how we would fund and provide oversight for the grantees of the Legal Services Corporation. Now I look at it and I think from ’74 on it was kind of I would use this as a comparison it was almost as though we were in a virgin territory we’re trying to find our way and so we follow the paths that the animals followed you know follow where the deer went or the bear or whatever and that is the way we were drawing the borders of the Legal Services Corporation. There was no particular sense to the way it was done and so state management of this having people within the state work with those who are the service providers and those who are the funders to get a rational approach to what is done in the state and it would bring together it has brought together the non-LSC funded with those who are funded by LSC and so we have really a chance to do a job of making the borders rational and working with the other non-funded legal service providers so that we have a consistent hold rather than a piece here and a piece there nobody knowing what the other fellow is doing. That’s one thing and then part of that led to reconfiguration and we abandoned the wild trail method and tried to have the reconfiguration done on the basis of some planning and here again looking at the state as a whole.
Don Saunders: That obviously has taken a lot of your time and the staff’s time it has created a good deal of impetus toward change and controversy within the field but you feel as if it’s on track and has accomplished a lot.
John Erlenborn: Yes it has accomplished a lot and we reduced and I don’t remember the exact figures but reduced the number of LSC funded service providers. We have about 170 at the current time and I think we started out with something like 220 or 230. The goal wasn’t to reduce the number just to be reducing it, it’s to make it a rational approach to how the borders are drawn and how the LSC funded can work with the non-funded so it has worked I think quite well.
Don Saunders: A little closer to home I know you have been putting a lot of your energy and time into creating a home a permanent home for the Legal Services Corporation. Tell us a bit about that.
John Erlenborn: Again a McKay initiative. John had the concept which the board adopted that if we had a building of our own it would be a sense of permanence in the legal service. We had been on the cusp of dying over the course of the last number of years and I mean snatched from the actual dismemberment of the corporation. Now we want to get that sense of permanency. Part of this is going to be in getting better funding but having our own building would say to the world the Legal Services Corporation is here and is going to stay here, it is permanent. When John left it had not yet been brought to fruition, it has been done in the interim. First of all it was discovered in talking to OMB Office of Management and Budget that if the corporation LSC Corporation itself were to purchase or build a home an office building that that would then be charged for budget purposes all in one year and if you bought a building as we have done that would be scored as part of the funding and that would then unless we got additional funding and considerable additional funding in that year according to the way they counted it, it was going to take away from the field funds the grantees who desperately need those funds and even more. So it was decided what we could do and we did created another corporation called Friends of Legal Services Corporation. It was charged with the finding and acquiring and then continuing to own and manage the building. We found one, 333 K Street on the edge of Georgetown, it’s just seems to be perfect for our needs, a very nice place to have your office. We have the Canal behind the office, we have the river Potomac in front of the office and I understand that there are plans on the water for a 200-300 seat floating restaurant so it will be a nice thing to have right there at our front door. But the important thing is now that we have the property we’re going to have to the build-out we probably won’t move in until about May of next year but it’s all worked out and it’s worked out with the help of the Gates Foundation who made a substantial commitment to help us fund this purchase.
Don Saunders: In spite of the progress and your excitement over some of the initiatives you remain also vigilant on those who oppose the concept. I know Representative Barr has asked the GAO to once again study the work of your grantees. What are you doing with regard to that and any other problems that may be facing the corporation under your tenure?
John Erlenborn: Well in the past Bob Barr had asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the case service reports. That particular problem was resolved, got a report from the GSA, from the General Services Administration to make some changes in how we count the cases that are reported to the corporation. The current investigation was called for by the internal inspector general, the IG of Legal Services Corporation and he will be conducting this. It probably will not be completed for oh maybe another six months or so. I don’t think we are going to have a problem. One of the things that he wants the IG to look at is the web sites that are being shared by a number of different organizations and what I think and I think it may come out with this way with the IG’s study that this is akin to having a telephone company where a lot of people use the telephone but if someone who is let’s say a felon or someone of ill repute uses the telephone that doesn’t poison the whole telephone system and I think this is the kind of approach that the IG may very likely take.
Don Saunders: What has been your experience in getting out and meeting your grantees and seeing the work of the programs that you fund, what has impressed you about that?
John Erlenborn: First of all I’ve not done as much of that as I might have, having some health problems last year and on into early this year. Now I’m 110 percent recovered . I’ve enjoyed going out to some of these grantees. Just yesterday as an example I was at a conference in Chicago for LSC grantees and other non-grantees that are all in the legal services business, and they had about 250 people there at this affair. They gave me an award, plaque to put on the wall. When they had called and talked to my staff about possibly attending I was then told by the staff that they said they were going to be giving me an award for a lifetime award for service and I said to them you think it’s over now, now they’re going to cap this off for me. But actually I really enjoyed going there, saw a lot of friends from Illinois that being my home state and I’m impressed with what they’ve done. Illinois for instance when they started state planning very quickly decided that they were going to have only three service providers for the whole state instead of the five or six they had before. I think that may have been done even without the encouragement of the corporation. But we have people who are really dedicated. You don’t make a lot of money working for legal services and there are lawyers who have worked for 5, 10, 20 years and more with Legal Services Corporation funded grantees. And they do it because they love it, they do it because they know that justice delayed or justice not given means that we all are losing a little bit of our rights. If we want people to follow the law, obey the law and then tell them they have no access to remedies in the law just makes no sense at all.
Don Saunders: Well said. By choice or circumstance you have been joined at the hip with this program for most of your career at least in Washington. We once again as a community face challenges. IOLTA is going to be argued in the United States Supreme Court this fall. We continue to see stagnant budgets despite your best efforts at the federal level and additional pressures on funding sources. In that context what is your view of the future? Where are we going in this country in keeping that promise of equal justice to all of our citizens?
John Erlenborn: I think that it’s past time now for the corporation to get very serious about pushing for more funding. This the budget of President Bush for 2003 would be a repeat of what we had the last two years so we’ve had no increase now or will not have an increase for three years unless something strange happens in Congress right now in the bill for 2003 appropriations happens to be increased over what the president called for. But I think it’s long past time for us to be pushing for substantial increases in the budget. We were over $400 million before the Congress cut back and that first step toward putting us out of business so we went down substantially and we’ve gone back a little bit but here we are maybe six years or so from when it was first substantially cut back and we’ve only recovered a small portion of that cut, so I think we should be mounting and I’m going to tell the new board this when they come on. Of course it will be up to them to make the decision but I think it’s time to really push for more legal services funding. If you really believe the promise that is embodied in the bill that was enacted to create the Legal Services Corporation then we have to serve better than 20 percent of those in need who are eligible for our services and that is about what we are able to do. Eighty percent of those who have a need and would go to us for help have to be turned away because we just don’t have the funding. And we want to see that that promise is kept and that means considerable increase in funding.
Don Saunders: Well John you certainly have been a stalwart supporter and critical player in the move toward equal justice in this country over the years it’s really been my pleasure to share some of these recollections with you. I wonder in closing is there any final comment you might like that you haven’t had a chance to get out.
John Erlenborn: Oh so much that I probably shouldn’t start. Let me say another thing that I think was very important in the past number of years is the fact that the corporation actually provided extremely good legal services for the corporation and for the Congress. What I mean is that the restrictions that were enacted back in 1996 have been supported in the courts by the Legal Services Corporation it has changed the thinking of a lot of members of the Congress, they now see us not as trying to create new law against what they would like to see and I think that has been a very important part of resurgence of support of the Legal Services Corporation.
Don Saunders: John, thank you very much.
John Erlenborn: Thank you. I didn’t think we could do an hour.
Don Saunders: We just about did. Thank you. Very nice, John.
John Erlenborn: Thank you. This happens when you are 75. There are points that you can’t find that word that you’re looking for.