Amid budget sacrifice, let the lawyers go first 

Congress and President Obama are on the verge of a budget deal likely to cause pain for almost everyone. The national debt stands at $14.3 trillion, with this year's deficit standing at $1.3 trillion.

The days of collecting two years (99 weeks) of unemployment benefits are surely numbered. Entitlements will likely become less generous for those of us under age 50. Certain subsidies will disappear.

Clearly, taxpayers have more than enough on their plates already. So -- should they also be made to pay $600-per-hour legal fees of environmentalists who sue the government?

The Equal Access to Justice Act, passed in 1980, was intended to help people with legitimate damage claims against the federal government recoup their legal costs.

The idea is that an old lady who doesn't get her Social Security check shouldn't have to spend her life savings in litigation against the Social Security Administration in order to get her money.

When the government acts in bad faith or adopts a position that is not substantially justified, the plaintiff can collect his or her legal fees under EAJA.

Unfortunately, EAJA is badly abused -- especially by environmental groups who sue the government over minor procedural matters for fun and profit. In 2009, I wrote here about how certain groups were taking advantage of EAJA, suing in order to protect and expand the already excessive wolf population in the Mountain West. In one of the key wolf lawsuits, the attorneys requested fees of about $660 per hour.

When members of Congress get out their knives to cut back on federal spending -- before they start ratcheting down housing or health care subsidies for the poor, and certainly before they start raising taxes on working families -- they should look to trim the trial lawyers' fat first.

They might want to consider the bill proposed by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., which would bring some accountability back to the way EAJA is enforced. Her Government Litigation Savings Act would limit the legal fees paid under EAJA to $175 per hour -- which probably sounds pretty decent to most unemployed Americans -- and to $200,000 per case.

It would bar plaintiffs from collecting legal expenses for more than three cases against the government per calendar year. And it would bar reimbursements to millionaires and groups with more than $7 million in assets.

In order to squelch the burgeoning EAJA lawsuit industry by environmental nonprofits, the bill would also require litigants who seek reimbursement to have a direct personal financial stake in the cases they have brought. Again, these are all ways of preventing abuses while preserving Granny's ability to sue the government.

Most importantly, Lummis' reforms would provide something that does not currently exist in this area: transparency. It orders a report from the Government Accountability Office on the last 15 years of EAJA payouts, whose full extent is impossible to know from publicly available documents. It also establishes a searchable online database for tracking future EAJA payouts, so that the public can keep track.

It is shocking enough that no one in government is currently tracking how much money goes out the door this way. It will come as an even greater shock if anyone seriously argues that transparency in this area would be a bad thing.

At a time when everyone else is being asked to sacrifice, it only makes sense that the first to be cut off are those who make a comfortable living taking your money to sue you.

David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at dfreddoso@washingtonexaminer.com.

About The Author

David Freddoso

Bio:
David Freddoso came to the Washington Examiner in June 2009, after serving for nearly two years as a Capitol Hill-based staff reporter for National Review Online. Before writing his New York Times bestselling book, The Case Against Barack Obama, he spent three years assisting Robert Novak, the legendary Washington... more
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