A fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint released March 16 by President Trump would direct additional funds to the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs while drastically cutting funding or eliminating numerous non-defense discretionary programs, including legal services.
The president’s proposal, “America First, a Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” is an outline for a more detailed plan that will be released in May.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which has been addressing the legal needs of the poor for more than 40 years, is one of 19 independent agencies cited for elimination in the president’s budget proposal.
ABA President Linda A. Klein expressed the association’s “outrage” over the plan to eliminate the LSC and urged every member of Congress to restore full funding. The program uses its current funding of $385 million to support 133 legal aid programs that serve every county in the United States and its territories. More than 1.9 million people are helped annually by LSC-funded efforts.
“LSC provides civil legal aid to people who desperately need help to navigate the legal process,” Klein said. “Without this assistance, courthouse doors will slam in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice.” She explained that LSC services include securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, delivering legal services to rural areas, protecting victims of domestic abuse, and helping disaster survivors.
Those qualified for legal services under the program are at or below 125 percent of federal poverty levels, which are $11,880 for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four. The most recent Census Bureau data show that more than 95.2 million Americans (one in three) qualified for civil legal aid at some point in 2014. Studies show, however, that 50 percent to 80 percent of all eligible people seeking legal aid services are turned away due to lack of resources.
Klein pointed out that the LSC has had bipartisan support since it was established in 1974 because it embodies the principles of fairness and equal access to justice. She vowed that the ABA will be working to ensure that Congress provides adequate funding for the program. As part of that effort, the association has launched the Legal Aid Defender (#LegalAidDefender) campaign providing a way for supporters of legal services to tell members of Congress why they are standing up for the LSC through personal messages, and to donate to legal services programs. More information about the campaign can be found at DefendLegalAid.org and HelpLegalAid.org.
LSC President James Sandman called the LSC the “backbone of the legal aid system in the United States” and noted its particular importance in serving rural areas. In each of the last fiscal years, strong bipartisan majorities in Congress have increased LSC funding by $10 million per year, he said.
Others are also weighing in with their support. More than 150 law firm leaders sent a March 10 letter to the Office of Management and Budget requesting that the president support full funding for the LSC. They emphasized that law firms’ ability to provide pro bono representation is dependent on partnerships with legal aid organizations that are funded by the LSC. “The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership that government should encourage, not eliminate,” the letter stated.
In addition to providing funds for building up the military, the budget focuses on putting more money into immigration enforcement, including funding to begin building a wall on the southern U.S. border with Mexico and additional resources for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, and the immigration courts. Also included would be funding for expanded detention capacity for immigrants awaiting immigration hearings.
A six percent increase in funding to $78.9 billion for the VA would be directed toward improving access to medical care services for veterans and continued support for services to homeless veterans.
Other proposals included in the blueprint include a 28 percent reduction for the State Department that calls for drastic cuts in funding to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations (UN) and affiliated agencies that include UN peacekeeping organizations, and a reduction in the U.S. contribution to the UN budget. Another agency facing harsh reductions is the Environmental Protection Agency, which would see a 31 percent reduction and the elimination of more than 50 programs.
Other programs facing elimination include across the government include:
•United States Interagency Council on Homelessness;
•Community Development Block Grant program, HOME Investment Partnerships Program, Choice Neighborhoods, Self-Help Homeowner Opportunity Program, and Section 4 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing;
•U.S. Institute of Peace;
•African Development Foundation;
•Corporation for Public Broadcasting;
•discretionary programs within the Office of Community Services in the Department of Health and Human Services that include the Community Services Block Grant supporting a wide range of assistance to low-income individuals; and
•$250 million in targeted grants and programs under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that support coastal and marine management, research and education.