FY 2011 Appropriations Process for Civil Legal Services

Overview of efforts to ensure adequate funding for legal services and repeal restrictions in the FY 2011 appropriations process.

March 1, 2011

The Brennan Center helps lead and support a campaign to repeal restrictions on civil legal services providers that receive federal funding. The Center also advocates for adequate funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). In light of the economic downturn and its impact on other sources of funding, the federal government’s fiscal support for LSC is absolutely vital.

Background on Restrictions.  In 1996, Congress attached numerous restrictions to the federal funding distributed by LSC to local, independent, legal services non profits that provide free legal assistance to low income people.  These restrictions limit the legal tools that clients of LSC-funded programs can rely on and also bar some categories of individuals from obtaining any legal assistance at all.  The most startling aspect of the restrictions is the “poison pill restriction,” so-called because once a legal services program accepts even a dollar in federal funds, the restriction imposes the entire set of restrictions on all activities conducted by the nonprofit, even those financed with their own funds raised from other sources such as the state government, local government and charitable private donors. 

Read more about the harms caused by the restrictions in the Brennan Center's white paper, A Call to End Federal Restrictions on Legal Aid for the Poor.

Through the FY 2010 appropriations process, Congress voted to repeal one aspect of the 1996 rider restrictions – the restriction prohibiting LSC grantees from seeking or claiming court-awarded attorneys' fees, a huge gain for legal aid clients and programs.

Recent DevelopmentsIn the appropriations process for fiscal year 2011, the Obama Administration and Congress took significant steps toward repealing additional restrictions and increasing funding for LSC.  However, those efforts have come to a halt in the 112th Congress.  Now, the House is proposing significant cuts to LSC’s budget.

  • Feb. 1, 2010 - The Obama Administration, in its budget for FY 2011 calls on Congress to repeal the restriction on non-LSC funds and the restriction on class actions.  The budget also urges maintenance of the FY 2010 repeal of the attorneys' fee restriction.  The budget recommends a total funding level for LSC of $435 million.
  • June 29, 2010 - Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV), in his mark of the FY 2011 Commerce-Justice-Science (“CJS”) Appropriations bill, includes repeal of the restriction prohibiting LSC-funded legal services programs and their clients from participating in class action lawsuits.  In the CJS Subcommittee markup, the Subcommittee approves the repeal of this restriction and defeats an amendment to reinstate the restriction introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).  The Subcommittee also approves a total funding level for LSC of $440 million, up from $420 million in FY 2010.
  • July 22, 2010 -- the Senate Appropriations Committee approves $430 million in total funding for LSC as part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations bill. The $10 million increase is contingent upon LSC’s implementation of all 17 of the recommendations made by the Government Accountability Office in its 2007 audit.  For the second year in a row, the Senate bill repeal almost all restrictions on non-federal funds, though it leaves in place the restriction on prisoner and abortion litigation with any funds.
  • December 8, 2010 – in the Lame Duck, post-midterm elections session, the House of Representatives passes a $1.1 trillion continuing resolution (CR) on a 212-206 vote that is set to expire on March 4, 2011. The vote ends weeks of speculation over whether the House would opt for a continuing resolution freezing funding at levels from fiscal year 2010 or wrap all twelve appropriations bills approved in committee this year into an omnibus bill. Under the continuing resolution, not only does the restriction on class action lawsuits remain in place, but funding for LSC also remains at the previous year’s $420 million, $20 million short of the $440 million that the CJS Appropriations Committee approved in June.
  • December 14, 2010 – The Senate Appropriations Committee introduces an omnibus spending bill, consolidating appropriations bills from the individual committees. The bill, which presumably reflects “pre-conference” agreements between the House and Senate, would lift the restriction on LSC grantees that bars participation in class action suits and provide [$FILL IN] in funding. Three days later, Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye withdraws the omnibus due to insufficient support. [wasn’t it Senate R objections that derailed it? Anyway, I wrote around it.] 
  • December 19, 2010 – The Senate approves the House’s version of the Continuing Resolution, freezing LSC funding at $420 million until March 4, 2011 and keeping all restrictions in place.
  • February 11, 2011 – The Republican controlled House introduces a Continuing Resolution for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, proposing a $70 million cut for LSC from current spending levels of $420 million set to expire on March 4, 2011. Directed mainly at basic field grants, the proposal amounts to a nearly 18 percent reduction in funding for local legal aid programs across the country, likely forcing programs to downsize their staff and client pool.
  • February 16, 2011 – Representative Jeff Duncan (R-SC) introduces an amendment to the House’s Continuing Resolution that would effectively eliminate LSC by gutting its budget of $324.4 million, the amount allocated for basic field grants. The amendment is decisively rejected on a bipartisan vote of 259 to 171.
  • February 25, 2011 – The House introduces a stop gap measure that will fund the government at 2010 levels for two weeks past March 4, 2011, thereby avoiding a government shutdown and leaving more time for the two chambers to agree on a spending bill for the remainder of the fiscal year. Under this temporary spending bill, funding for LSC remains at $420 million.
  • April 14, 2011 – After months of wrangling and short term extensions, Congress passed a spending bill to fund the government until September that reduced LSC’s funding by $15.8 million. Although this cut is less than the $70 million called for in the House’s original proposal, H.R. 1, it will be absorbed over a six month period, resulting in a more concentrated impact for local legal aid offices.

Movement on FY12 Approrpriations begins. On February 14, 2011, the Obama Administration submitted a budget to Congress for fiscal year 2012 that recommends increasing funding for LSC to $450 million. At $30 million more than current levels, this additional funding would provide a much needed boost for civil legal service providers. For a third year in a row, the President recommended that Congress also remove the restrictions on non-LSC funds and class actions. LSC also submitted its formal budget request to the Congress calling for $516.5 million in funding.

In the News: Commentators and Advocates Speak Out in Support of Legal Services