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A Top Republican Backs A Federal Legal Aid Agency The White House Is Trying To Defund

The Trump administration has proposed getting rid of the Legal Services Corporation, which funds legal aid for low-income Americans. The agency’s president nevertheless said he’s “optimistic” about the future, given bipartisan support from Congress.

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As the Trump administration pushes ahead with a proposal to get rid of the Legal Services Corporation — a federal agency that provides millions of dollars in grants each year for legal aid for low-income Americans — the White House faces opposition not only from Democrats, but from Republicans and corporate America as well.

The president’s proposed budget released by the White House on Tuesday calls for a complete defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. The agency, which received $385 million this year from Congress, gives grants to 133 legal aid organizations across the country. Trump’s 2018 budget would provide $33 million to wind down its operations.

The fate of the agency’s budget ultimately lies with Congress, though, and several Republicans in the House and Senate have already joined Democrats in opposing the cut. In a May 18 letter obtained by BuzzFeed News, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn — the second ranking Republican in the Senate — and two other Senate Republicans joined Democrats in urging the Senate Committee on Appropriations to provide “robust funding” for the agency.

“Recent research shows that civil legal aid is a good investment of taxpayer dollars, as it reduces clients’ reliance on other types of governmental aid and enhances their ability to participate in the marketplaces,” the letter says.

Cornyn was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday. The other Republicans who signed the letter were Alaska Sen. Daniel Sullivan and South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds.

Cornyn on Tuesday released a statement praising Trump’s focus on military spending in the White House's 2018 budget proposal, but a day earlier had tweeted a gentle reminder that it is Congress, not the president, that controls the budget.

All POTUS budgets are https://t.co/fOUABnSGSl

.@JohnCornyn says Trump's budget is "dead on arrival"

Jim Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, told BuzzFeed News that he feels “optimistic” about the agency’s fiscal future, given the outpouring of support and the responses he’s gotten from members of Congress so far.

“I have been very encouraged by the strong bipartisan expressions of support for LSC funding from many members of Congress over the past few months,” Sandman said. “Members of Congress understand that LSC-funded legal aid programs provide important constituent services in their home districts and are critical in ensuring fairness in the justice system.”

An Office of Management and Budget report on Trump’s proposed budget said that defunding the Legal Services Corporation would end the “one-size-fits-all model” of providing legal services through a federal program. Getting rid of the agency “puts more control in the hands of State and local governments which better understand the needs of their communities,” the budget office said.

Republicans have a history of opposing the federal legal aid program, raising concerns about mismanagement and a lack of accountability, as well as federally-funded lawyers’ involvement in certain types of legal advocacy. President Ronald Reagan wanted to get rid of it, and conservative lawmakers over the years have introduced legislation to eliminate funding.

Conservative advocacy group the Heritage Foundation proposed eliminating funding for the agency in a budget “blueprint” released in March, arguing that state and local governments were better equipped to address the needs of local communities.

Support for the agency has poured in from across the legal community. Since March, the American Bar Association, law firms, corporate lawyers, state court judges, law school deans, and state attorneys general — Republicans and Democrats — have sent letters to Congress denouncing the move.

“While we understand that within this fiscal environment difficult decisions about spending must be made, we believe that access to justice is not an expendable luxury but an indispensable manifestation of our country’s most fundamental values,” said one letter signed by 185 leaders of corporate legal departments.

In late March, a handful of Republicans in the House joined Democrats in signing a letter that called for continued funding for the agency.

Martha Bergmark, a former Legal Services Corporation president who now runs Voices for Civil Justice, a group that advocates for civil legal aid, told BuzzFeed News that it would be “political suicide” for members of Congress to support getting rid of the agency.

“I think they don’t want to face their constituents knowing they’ve just voted to take away a lawyer for a domestic violence survivor, for a farmer, for a veteran,” Bergmark said.

Zoe Tillman is a reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Zoe Tillman at zoe.tillman@buzzfeed.com.

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