Members of Congress are in the midst of negotiations that likely will lead to another cut in funding for the Legal Services Corp.
Senators and House members are meeting in a conference committee to discuss how to move forward with fiscal 2012 spending legislation that could trim funding for several agencies, including the private, nonprofit corporation that provides civil legal aid to the poor. Congress has decreased the budget of the Legal Services Corp. by more than $20 million since fiscal 2010.
A fiscal 2012 appropriations bill the Democratic-controlled Senate passed by a 69-30 vote on Nov. 1 includes $396 million for Legal Services Corp., while a spending measure that cleared the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee July 13 set aside $300 million for the agency.
James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corp., said he is hopeful that any cuts to his agency’s budget will be minimal. “We have bipartisan support in the Senate and House,” Sandman said. “And I have been encouraged by that.”
The conference committee first met on Nov. 3. Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over Legal Services Corp. funding, said in a Nov. 9 phone interview that the conference committee was looking to finish its work soon.
The congressman, who is on the conference committee, said he expects the lawmakers to reach a compromise on Legal Services Corp. funding that’s between the Senate and House proposals. “I’m pushing for the highest possible amount,” Fattah said. “I’m a big supporter of Legal Services.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over Legal Services Corp., expressed support for the agency, while key Republicans were less supportive.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee Fattah sits on, said at a congressional hearing in April that he backs funding for civil legal aid. But he said the Legal Services Corp. and the organizations it helps fund should rely more on state bar dues, law schools and large law firms for money. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who sits opposite Mikulski on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, has said she is skeptical of the agency. “I think that Legal Services does good work when they stay within the parameter of helping poor people who can’t afford legal counsel for their day-to-day needs,” Hutchison said in a March interview with The National Law Journal.
The Legal Services Corp. is currently operating with a $398 million budget approved by Congress in a temporary spending measure for fiscal 2012. The sum is $6 million less than the agency received in fiscal 2011 and almost $22 million less than it got in fiscal 2010. For fiscal 2012, the Legal Services Corp. urged Congress to give it $517 million.
The agency is the largest recipient of money for civil legal aid across the country. Many of the clients of civil legal aid organizations are victims of domestic abuse or individuals facing eviction. Legal Services Corp. gives grants to 136 civil legal aid organizations across the country and provides about 43% of those groups’ funding on average, according to Sandman.
The organizations in 2010 had 9,059 employees, including 4,351 lawyers. During the first half of 2011, the groups shed 445 staffers, including more than 200 lawyers.
Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington is one of those organizations. The group, which receives about three-quarters of its funding from the Legal Services Corp., is down four lawyers from last year and has decided not to fill three of the positions for the time being, Brenda Ford Harding, the organization’s executive director, said. The organization currently has 18 employees, including 14 lawyers, who work out of three offices in low-income neighborhoods.
Harding said the program is a “very lean” operation. “We’re trying really hard not to lay people off,” she said.
Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.