A One-Word History of Legal Services Corporation Funding: Vicissitudes

This is what a political football looks like.

We posted earlier this week about the National Law Journal’s multi-story feature on civil legal services.  One of those stories, “For LSC, a 30-year Funding Rollercoaster,” does a nice job of tracing the history of LSC’s congressional funding fluctuations amid shifting political winds.  The PSLawNet Blog is a history dork, but we like to think that this look back at the history of federally funded legal services will be useful for both students and newer attorneys alike.

A synopsis in quotes (emphasis ours):

…The Legal Services Corp. has its roots in the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty.”…

…In 1974, [President Nixon] signed the Legal Services Corporation Act [which established LSC as a stand-alone, quasi-governmental agency]….

…In 1980, Congress allocated a record $300 million to the LSC, which funded 1,450 local offices staffed by roughly 6,000 attorneys.  But when Reagan became president, the LSC became a major battleground between liberals and conservatives….

…[I]n 1982, the lawmakers cut its budget by 25%, to $225 million, forcing the closing of 285 offices and the layoffs of nearly 1,800 lawyers. It also began to impose a series of restrictions on legal services funds, for example, limiting lobbying and rulemaking….

…The arrival of Bill Clinton’s administration brought new optimism … Congress approved a record $400 million for the agency in fiscal years 1994 and 1995….

…The political landscape, however, changed dramatically with the midterm elections….

…[In 1995] Congress…cut the $400 million LSC budget by $122 million. It also imposed sweeping restrictions, including bans on class actions, lobbying, welfare reform advocacy, representation of most aliens and prisoners, and collection of attorney fees….

And today, the House has proposed slashing LSC’s budget by $70 million, which, according to LSC’s board chair, could result in over 350 attorney layoffs as well as office closures at a time when need among clients is extraordinarily high.  Finally, when analyzing changes in funding over time, it’s always useful to put things in perspective by accounting for inflation’s effect on the dollar.  In doing so, we see that LSC is mired in the past:

If the $300 million grant to the LSC in 1980, which was intended to properly fund legal services in America, were adjusted for inflation, [LSC board chair John] Levi said, the LSC’s appropriation would be roughly $750 million.

$750, even though that would be no more than what LSC was funded over 30 years ago, is pie in the sky.  LSC will be fighting to keep funding in the $400 millions in the current budget debates.

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