October 17, 2019

Legal Services Funding (LSC) Update

Initial news is good, but spending negotiations on the Hill are slow

While an August 2nd bipartisan budget deal between the Senate, House, and Administration promised smooth sailing for appropriations bills, the spending efforts now find themselves in the doldrums.

Congress did not pass its 12 traditional spending bills before the September 30th fiscal year deadline. Consequently, both chambers approved a continuing resolution (CR) that was signed into law on September 27th to avoid a government shutdown on October 1st. The continuing resolution funds programs, including the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), at FY2019 levels through November 21st—a week before Thanksgiving—to give Congress more time to pass the remaining appropriations bills for FY2020.

So far, in September, the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations unanimously voted (31-0) to pass the FY2020 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Act, S. 2584. The Senate bill would appropriate $425,500,000 for LSC—a $10.5 million increase over the current, continuing FY2019 funding of $415 million. The White House’s Statement of Administration Policy expressed disappointment that the LSC funding was included after the Administration had called for elimination of LSC.

The Senate committee passed its bill more than three months after the full United States House of Representatives passed its version of the CJS Appropriations Act, H.R. 3055, in June by a vote of 227-194. At that time, the House appropriated $550,000,000 for the Legal Services Corporation – a $135 million increase over current funding levels.

Now Congress is back from a two-week October recess and working on the appropriations process, but negotiations are not going well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has accused Democratic colleagues of reneging on the bipartisan budget deal and the Democrats contend that the budget deal should not ban consideration of policy amendments previously considered by the Congress with a history of bipartisan support. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) recently reported that spending negotiations remain in a “prolonged slump,” an indicator of a possible government shutdown or another CR.

At this point, the House needs to reconsider its CJS appropriations bill in light of the August budget deal that called for a reduction of $15 billion in non-defense discretionary funding vis-à-vis the House-passed bills. That reduction will affect total spending in the FY2020 CJS appropriations bill and could cause a reduction in the $550 million House spending proposal for LSC.

It is likely that the final FY2020 appropriation for LSC will be somewhere between the Senate number of $425,500,00 and the House number of $550,000,000. Either way, LSC is likely to receive more funding than it did in FY2019, but the unmet legal need is still huge, and we continue to advocate for as much funding as possible.

On October 8th, American Bar Association President Judy Perry Martinez sent a letter to Senate CJS Appropriations Committee Chair Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) urging them “to make LSC a top priority in reconciling the differences with the House bill and to move as close to the House funding level as possible.”

In the coming weeks and months, both chambers will continue to conference their two vastly different amounts to achieve a final FY2020 appropriation for LSC.

Add your voice to the ABA’s advocacy efforts to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation by clicking here. Follow us on Twitter @ABAGrassroots to watch for further developments.