In the first steps in a long budget battle, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees began approving fiscal year 2014 appropriations bills this month, including measures to fund the federal judiciary and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).
Both House and Senate committees recognized the adverse impact that sequestration has had on the federal judiciary and included total judiciary funding of $6.54 billion and $6.67 billion, respectively, as part of the funding bills for Financial Services and General Government. The House committee approved its bill, H.R. 2786, on July 17, and the Senate committee cleared its draft legislation July 25.
Sequestration reduced overall judiciary funding earlier this year by nearly $350 million to below its fiscal year 2012 level. The committee-approved amounts would bring judiciary funding above its fiscal year 2013 level prior to the sequestration. The Senate bill conforms to the judiciary’s revised fiscal year 2014 request.
Both bills would help restore funding to the Defender Services Program, which provides criminal defense representation services to indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act, suffered disproportionately from sequestration due to the inflexibility of its budget. The Senate bill includes an appropriation of $1.1 billion for the program, an 11.4 percent increase over the current funding level. The House bill includes $1.06 billion. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s summary, its bill “restores severe cuts to Federal Defender offices and ensures that they are adequately staffed.” The Senate bill also includes a small adjustment to the hourly rate paid to panel attorneys; the House bill would not increase the rate.
Also approved by the committees this month were fiscal year 2014 funding bills for Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) and related agencies.
The House committee, which cleared H.R. 2787 on July 10, includes $300 million for the LSC, a reduction of approximately 11.7 percent from the program’s current funding level of $340 million. The Senate bill, S. 1329, includes an LSC appropriation of $430 million, the level requested by President Obama and supported by the ABA.
The significant gap between the figures is explained by the fact that the House and Senate have not agreed upon a fiscal year 2014 budget resolution and are operating according to different budget allocations: the Senate amount is $94 billion more than the House.
During House committee markup of the CJS bill, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the CJS appropriations subcommittee, and subcommittee Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) voiced their desire to provide more funding to the LSC, but pointed out the severe budget constraints under which the House committee is working.
In a statement submitted to the House CJS appropriations subcommittee in March, ABA President Laurel G. Bellows urged increased funding for the LSC, emphasizing that limited resources prevent LSC grantees from responding to more than half the applications for legal assistance by eligible individuals.
No action is expected on the bills until after the August recess.