February 01, 2015

Congress begins fiscal year 2016 funding process

Congress began the fiscal year 2016 appropriations process this month, and members are weighing President Obama’s proposed budget proposals, which were sent to Capitol Hill Feb. 2 with increased funding levels for numerous programs supported by the ABA.

The president’s budget requests $452 million for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a substantial increase from the corporation’s current level of $375 million. In addition to his proposed increase for the LSC, the president’s request includes the following additional funding.

• Criminal Justice Programs. Four programs strongly supported by the ABA would receive more funding: the Second Chance Act, from $68 million to $120 million; a justice reinvestment initiative to analyze state and local justice systems, from $27.5 million to $45 million; the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, from $8.5 million to $14 million; and Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, from $376 million to $388 million.

• Federal Judiciary. The president’s proposal for the federal judiciary, which originates in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, includes $6.96 billion, compared to the current level of $6.7 billion. Additional funding would go to courthouse security, information technology and defender services.

• Immigration. The president proposes an increase for the Executive Office of Immigration Review in the Department of Justice from $347 million to $482 million. This increase would provide funds for programs to improve the level and quality of legal representation for vulnerable populations, including: providing counsel; hiring an additional 55 immigration judge teams to provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors; and expanding the Legal Orientation Program, which provides detained individuals with comprehensive information about immigration court procedures along with other basic legal information.

• Social Security. The president’s budget would provide increased funding to hire SSA administrative law judges to address the current backlog of more than one million disability appeals cases, with the funds being reallocated to the Disability Insurance Fund from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund.

The president’s budget plan also revives a provision from last year’s proposal that would modify the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program to set a limit of $57,500 on the amount of federal student loans that may be forgiven under the program – a move opposed by the ABA that would impose additional financial hardship on law school graduates who often leave law school with more than $100,000 in student loan debt.

The president’s plan does not adhere to base discretionary spending caps under the Budget Control Act of 2011, instead relying on proposed spending and tax reforms to cover the proposals. The budget committees in the House and Senate are wrestling to come up with a fiscal year 2016 budget resolution for approval by the full House and Senate by the end of March. The budget resolution sets targets for other congressional committees to follow as they set spending levels for the fiscal year for programs under their jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, Congress was still struggling to meet a Feb. 27 deadline for approving fiscal year 2015 funding for the Department of Homeland Security. The agency was the only part of the government not funded by a continuing resolution signed by the president in December after Republicans opposed the president’s executive action intended to provide temporary deportation relief to up to five million undocumented immigrants.  

The House passed a DHS appropriations bill Feb. 14 with provisions barring the use of funds for the immigration program. The measure became stalled in the Senate when supporters could not garner the 60 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote.

At the same time, the Obama program was put on hold Feb. 17 after a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas issued a temporary injunction blocking implementation. The Justice Department filed a request Feb. 23 for an emergency stay of the injunction.

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