An item in a preliminary Trump administration budget plan would, if implemented, hobble one of New York City's main providers of legal representation to poor people, and gut other legal services offices across New York state and the country.
The draft proposal, reported by the New York Times and The Guardian in February, would eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the federal agency that in turn provides much of the funding for pro bono lawyers representing people who can't afford them in civil matters including eviction, foreclosure, discrimination, and the state trying to strip them of child custody. LSC serves nearly 2 million people a year.
The agency's budget in 2016 was $385 million, slightly less than the cost of a single F-22 Raptor fighter jet, and less than a thousandth of the Department of Defense's 2016 budget. The Trump proposal to eliminate legal services as well as the Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and an array of other low-on-cost, high-on-symbolism government entities is a resurrection of a two-decade-old Heritage Foundation budget hit list that singles out programs over alleged government waste, liberal influence, and government overreach. Trump also seems intent on cutting international aid, the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard and others, while boosting military spending by $54 billion.
I hope reports that White House trying to defund Legal Services Corp aren't true. LSC is CRUCIAL to making justice system fair. #LSCmatters
— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 28, 2017
The LSC has been controversial since Richard Nixon approved its creation in 1974, with conservative activists and lobbyists accusing it of promoting a left-wing agenda, and saying it performed a role better left to the states. The American Farm Bureau Federation disliked it because legal services organizations frequently sued on behalf of workers, often immigrants, challenging wage theft and hazardous, illegal working conditions. The Christian Coalition also assailed the agency, saying it "subsidizes divorce and illegitimacy," and in 1995, with Newt Gingrich installed as House speaker, Republicans proposed phasing out the LSC.
The following year, Congress members reached a compromise wherein LSC would have its budget cut by a third, and recipients of its grants would be subject to a litany of restrictions, including bans on policy advocacy, representing undocumented immigrants, and bringing class-action lawsuits. With the deal in place, LSC grant recipients cannot do any of the restricted types of work even with money from other sources, or else they are subject to having the federal funds revoked.
Public defenders representing people accused of crimes, though many struggle with large case loads and limited resources for working cases, are less at risk of being totally wiped out because of the constitutionally mandated right to counsel.
When adjusted for inflation, funding for the LSC peaked in 1980 at $300 million, or $884 million in 2017 dollars. Since the brinksmanship of the '90s there has not been a serious threat of taking the agency out entirely— in recent years Republican representatives have introduced amendments to defund the LSC, but they haven't come close to passing—and no president since Ronald Reagan has proposed it.
The Trump administration's preliminary plan seems to be setting the White House on a crash course with the Republican-controlled Congress. Speaking to The Hill, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, did not praise the LSC, but referring to the gambit of total defunding, predicted "you couldn't get it through the Senate."
"I would rather not have to be involved in a battle with the [White House's] Office of Management and Budget about whether we should be included in their recommendations," said Jim Sandman, president of the LSC, "but Congress is going to decide what the appropriation is, not the executive branch. We have good bipartisan support in Congress, [and] I am confident Congress will continue to fund us."
At the same time, there is a chance funding could fall short of the agency's $467 million budget request, or be further reduced.
"The real question is going to be what the amount of our funding is," Sandman explained, "not whether we continue to exist. That's an issue that's going to face all discretionary spending programs."
He added that, although the Office of Management and Budget has indicated that it sent its preliminary budget to all agencies, as is customary, LSC has yet to receive a formal proposal, a delay he said he has never seen in his six years at the helm.
Any further reduction to the LSC budget would likely have serious repercussions for New York's Legal Services NYC, which handled nearly 15,000 cases in 2015 affecting a total of nearly 36,000 clients and their family members. The greatest portion of the organization's cases are in housing court, an area where it has staffed up under Mayor Bill de Blasio as he has increased funding focused on trying to turn back the tide of homelessness amid the city's ongoing affordability crisis. In 2014, more than a quarter of LSNYC's $51 million budget came from the federal government, whereas last year the budget was $69 million, thanks in large part to added city support, and the federal contribution made up 17 percent of the total.
Nevertheless, LSNYC director Raun Rasmussen said, LSC funding is critical to what his lawyers do to help people, and without it, people would suffer.
Defunding LSC "would have a devastating impact," he said. He explained that, though housing and foreclosure work are currently well supported by the city, LSC funding still picks up the tail ends of some projects in those areas, without which they couldn't fulfill the grant specifications. Other things LSNYC does would be even more at risk.
"There are other practice areas where we don’t have any specific funding at all, like consumer and employment, our education work, and some of our elder law work," Rasmussen said. "For those practice areas, elimination could mean we would have no lawyers for those [people]."
Those people being kids who need help qualifying for special education services, kids facing long-term suspension from school, victims of predatory debt collectors, victims of domestic violence seeking restraining orders, and disabled people seeking benefits, among others.
"One thing to say is that this funding is about trying to deliver what is a core value of our country, and that is to provide an opportunity for justice to all Americans," Rasmussen said. "Without this funding we would be chipping away at that American value."
In civil court, as in criminal court, studies have shown that simply having a lawyer greatly improves one's outcomes—for example, a study by the Legal Aid Society and New York City Bar Association found that once tenants have lawyers in housing court, their chances of being evicted drop by 77 percent.
"We have a legal system created by lawyers, for lawyers, and with the assumption that you have a lawyer," Sandman said. "If you do not have a lawyer, the system does not work. I have yet to meet the person who thinks it's okay that a victim of domestic violence would have to walk into court alone to seek a protection order against an abuser."
There is also an economic argument. In advocating for low-income tenants having the right to counsel in housing court, which the city recently committed to, the New York City Bar Association commissioned a study by financial analysts, who found that spending $199 million on housing lawyers for all people making less than $48,000 would save $251 million in annual shelter costs, $259 million worth of preserved affordable housing, and $9 million in hospitalization, law enforcement, and other costs associated with street homelessness. Similarly, LSC asserts that in 2014, services to domestic violence survivors saved $85 million in medical and mental health costs, and lost wages and productivity.
Homelessness has continued to creep to new record highs under de Blasio, but city officials estimate that anti-eviction efforts have prevented an additional 10,000 people from entering the shelter system.
Though legal services has been in the sights of conservatives for decades, Rasmussen said that Vice President Mike Pence's past involvement with Heritage Foundation budget austerity efforts targeting LSC means "the threat feels greater now."
The Legal Aid Society, New York City's other citywide legal services organization, rejected LSC funding when the new restrictions went into effect in 1996. It was a political stand, but combined with financial mismanagement, it almost brought the organization to the point of collapse in the early 2000s. Today, the organization subsists on private donations, and city and state funding. The decision to reject LSC money is still taken seriously all these years later.
"You hate, in the world of not-for-profits, to cut off a funding source," said Rich Davis, chairman of the society's board of directors. "You just can’t accept it if it’s going to come with too many strings, particularly because policy advocacy and class actions are central to what we do. We represent hundreds of thousands of individuals. If you see systemic issues, the way to have impact is to take on the systemic issues."
For example, Legal Aid was behind the many-year lawsuit that established a right to shelter for homeless people in New York City, which in addition to serving hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, has cost the city a fortune. Mayor de Blasio hired Legal Aid's former head Steven Banks, who was part of the team that worked on the litigation, to oversee homelessness and welfare issues, to the chagrin of conservative observers.
Legal Aid has the benefit of a broad and deep donor pool, and a city and state government with deep tax coffers, thanks to its being located in the world finance capital. Legal services providers in small towns and rural areas tend to not only take Legal Services Corporation funds, but rely on them to such a large degree that any reduction would have even more dramatic impacts. The Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York, for example, is based in Utica, serves the entire middle third of the state, and gets 34 percent of its funding from LSC.
In Alabama, the Legal Services of Alabama is "almost the only game in town," according to Sandman, and LSC money comprises 80 percent of its budget.
On the legislative front, Sandman said that Democratic Reps. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and Steve Cohen of Tennessee are particularly strong advocates for LSC. We reached out to 12 senators and representatives from New York. Five, all Democrats (including Reps. Eliot Engel, Nydia Velázquez, Grace Meng, and Joe Crowley), sent on-the-record statements in opposition to LSC cuts.
"It’s clear from this budget blueprint that President Trump fully intends to break his promises to working families by taking a meat ax to programs that benefit the middle-class and those struggling to get there," Senate Minority Leader and Brooklynite Chuck Schumer said in a statement, adding, "Most Americans certainly didn't vote to make all these cuts so that President Trump can hand out a tax break to the wealthiest Americans. I will continue to push to make sure the LSC, a vital program, gets the funding it deserves."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Dan Donovan (R-Staten Island) said that he recognizes the importance of LSC and will continue to support it. A senior aide to Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) said that Meeks typically signs on to a letter calling to increase or maintain LSC funding, and plans to do so this year.
The Mayor's Office did not respond to a request for comment on whether de Blasio will seek to buttress lost funds in the event of an LSC cut. Governor's Office spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer wrote, "Governor Cuomo believes in access to quality legal services for all New Yorkers and any diminishment in federal support threatens to undermine the progress we’ve made and places an undue burden on state and local taxpayers." She said it's too early to say what Cuomo will do in the event of a cut.
The current federal budget is based on what's called a continuing resolution, a stopgap measure that keeps funding levels in place after a budget runs its course. That is set to expire at the end of April. Congress has to either come up with a new budget before then, or agree to kick the can down the road a bit further. Trump has previewed his budget plans but has yet to issue a formal budget proposal, an initial step in the congressional budget process.
An email to the press office of President Trump's permanent campaign was not returned.