The Right Way to Respond to the President’s Budget Proposal: Using Good Baseball Strategy

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

As you’ve surely heard by now, President Trump’s first budget blueprint released last week targets the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and 18 other agencies for elimination, and calls for significant cuts to a number of other federal agencies and programs that provide vital help for people in need. This is just the start of the budget process and represents both a challenge and a big opportunity for our legal community to respond. We are advocates by trade with a strong hand to play here. We need to call on those skills to remind our members of Congress of the critical role LSC, as the principal funder of civil legal aid at the national level, and other federal access to justice programs play in assuring fairness in the justice system and carrying out one of our nation’s most fundamental responsibilities.

Resources

The CBA and ISBA have a Fact Sheet that covers key points, and you can find more context about the importance here in Illinois on the CBF website and in our recent Crain’s Op-Ed. ABA President Linda Klein issued a statement about LSC when the budget blueprint was released last week that is a great model for overall messaging as well, and Voices for Civil Justice is another good resource you can consult on LSC and related access to justice issues.

In honor of it being less than two weeks from the Cubs opening game as defending World Series champs (and how cool is it to be able to say that!), I think it is fitting to use a baseball analogy to frame the issue and talk about key points to remember for our legal community’s response.

It’s only the top of the second inning, but the opposing pitcher has knocked our team off its game by calling unusual and often unpredictable pitches and challenging basic notions of sportsmanship. The good news: it is still very early in the game, we’ve got the meat of our batting order coming up, one of our best pitchers on the mound, and a deep and rested bench and bullpen to call upon. While that is all good, it’s going to take a strong game plan to turn those advantages into a win.

It’s Early in the Game

The first thing to remember is it is very early in the game as the budget goes. While it is frustrating and disappointing that the new Administration believes the Legal Services Corporation and related access to justice programs are not worthy of federal support, this is just the start of the budget process and the real action will be in Congress, where there continues to be broad bipartisan support for LSC and access to justice.

This is politics, and as many have noted over the years, politics is a contact sport. Continuing with the baseball analogy, we just got brushed back by the other team’s pitcher here. The right response is to get back in the batter’s box and hit the ball hard.

Don’t Obsess about What the Yankees Are Doing (Unless You Are the Yankees)

The words of the legendary Tip O’Neill still ring true today: all politics is local. While the President’s budget proposal can set a tone with members of his own party, members of Congress are most interested in and respond to what their own constituents and voters tell them about the issues of the day.

That is where you come in: even if you don’t view yourself as influential, we all have a degree of influence with our own elected officials simply by reaching out as one of their constituents. Some of us have added influence by virtue of our professional positions or personal relationships with elected officials, and it’s even more important for those of us with this additional influence to make our voices heard. Regardless of which of these categories you are in, reaching out and letting elected officials know you care about LSC and related programs and encouraging your friends and colleagues to do the same makes a big difference.

Know the Scouting Report on the Other Team

We all know one of the most important points in any advocacy whether in court or otherwise is to understand the other side’s case. That is particularly important here.

The President’s budget blueprint is largely based on a proposal from the Heritage Foundation, which happened not so coincidentally to also be called a blueprint. The two blueprints are consistent with the views and records of the President’s budget director, the Vice President, and several other members of the Administration, who always have been very hard line when it comes to spending for virtually any government program. While there is a significant minority of the House of Representatives who hold similar views on the budget perhaps half or more of the Republican members of the House they do not represent a majority in Congress and have never found support from anywhere close to a majority of the American people.

Their primary arguments on LSC and many other programs like Americorps that are targeted for elimination are essentially twofold: these programs are not a federal responsibility and are not an efficient use of taxpayer money. In the words of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the people who give us the money in the first place€¦We’re not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore€¦unless we can guarantee to you that money is being used in a proper function.

In terms of the federal responsibility argument, we should be able to dismiss that out of hand when it comes to LSC and other access to justice programs. There may not be a principle more fundamental to who we are as Americans than equal justice under law. The Preamble to the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance underscore this fact, and the promise of justice for all can only be realized if people have access to necessary legal help regardless of their income or circumstances. That is where LSC and similar programs come in, and the argument this is not a federal responsibility should get thrown out of the game.

Demanding accountability should be a given for any government funded program, and LSC stacks up very well. Not only does LSC funding provide crucial legal help to millions of Americans in need every year for just a tiny fraction of the federal budget, studies from Illinois and throughout the country consistently show that funding for legal aid is a solid economic investment as well.

Watch Out for Trick Plays

The other argument you’ll hear from the opposition is that government spending is out of control and we need to tighten our belts. There may be some truth to that argument when it comes to spending on entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which eat up the largest share of the budget by far. That, however, is not where these proposed cuts are targeted; rather, the proposed cuts go to the small fraction of federal spending that is considered domestic discretionary spending.

I am not going to try to make the case for every one of these so-called discretionary programs, and it may be there are places in the budget where there has been excessive spending. That case can never be made for LSC though. In fact, LSC is near an all-time low in funding at the same time a record number of Americans are in need of these services. Since 1981, the number of Americans eligible for legal aid has increased by more than 50% to a record of more than 60 million people, yet Congress now allocates over 50% less in funding for LSC than it did in 1981 after adjusting for inflation.

Lead by Example

As we advocate for funding for LSC and other access to justice programs, our pro bono and voluntary financial support are more important than ever, but not for reasons many initially think.

In recent years, Illinois lawyers consistently have reported more than 2 million hours of pro bono service and voluntary donations of more than $15 million for legal aid each year. As a legal community, we need to continue to do more, but those voluntary efforts can never replace proper funding from Congress for this core governmental responsibility and we should be careful not to give anyone the impression that responsibility can be skirted through private efforts.

What our voluntary efforts do underscore is that we take our professional responsibility as trustees of the justice system seriously. We’re not just talking the talk but walking the walk, and we need to bring that same energy and commitment to our advocacy.

Stick to the Fundamentals

Taking all of the above into account, there are two other advocacy fundamentals that we need to remember: prepare and stay on message.

The CBA and ISBA have a Fact Sheet that covers key points, and you can find more context about the importance here in Illinois on the CBF website and in our recent Crain’s Op-Ed. ABA President Linda Klein issued a statement about LSC when the budget blueprint was released last week that is a great model for overall messaging as well, and Voices for Civil Justice is another good resource you can consult on LSC and related access to justice issues.

Play Ball!

Now it’s time to get in the game by reaching out to your members of Congress. You can find all the resources you need to take action on the CBF website.

You also can ensure that you will receive advocacy updates and alerts on these issues by taking the Justice Pledge or emailing Angela Inzano at the CBF at ainzano@chicagobar.org.

There are undoubtedly other issues you care about that may be affected by the proposed budget or other actions of the Administration and Congress. While you can choose your own analogy and will need to identify the right advocacy resources, I encourage you to follow a similar analysis to what I’ve laid out in this post and make your voice heard!