Leadership Visits Congress to Advocate
for Legal Aid and Loan Forgiveness
Every year, the American Bar Association (ABA) invites bar leaders from across the nation to Washington, DC, for a day of lobbying on issues of primary importance to the organized bar, known as ABA Day. And each year, the BBA’s President and President-Elect make the journey, alongside their counterparts from the MBA, to meet with members of the Massachusetts delegation and relay our shared concerns.
This year was no different, with President Jon Albano and President-Elect Chris Netski traveled to Congress, joined by their opposite numbers at the MBA, Chris Kenney and John Morrissey.
The ABA selects two issues each time to ask its members to speak to their respective elected officials about. This year, like every year in recent memory, one of those is the federal appropriation for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the leading funder of legal-aid providers throughout the US. Our second topic for this event was the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), established by Congress in 2008 to provide assistance with student debt to workers in public service who have made qualifying payments for 120 months (or 10 years).
LSC is always on our minds when we sit down with members of Congress, because of the critical role it plays in promoting access to justice for those who would otherwise not be able to afford an attorney. We are very fortunate in Massachusetts that our legal-services providers benefit from the state appropriation to the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC), but other states are much more reliant on federal funding—some of them entirely dependent.
This year, for the third straight time, the White House’s budget plan proposes to completely de-fund LSC, which would have devastating consequences for legal services nationwide. There has been enough support for LSC in Congress to reject that effort, yet funding has, for many years now, failed to keep up with the demand. This year, the LSC line-item stands at $415 million, a figure that we asked to Congress to increase to $593 million. Even that significant boost, however, would leave LSC with a smaller budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it had in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
We are also fortunate to be represented by a delegation that has offered steadfast support for LSC funding over the years, and we were met with nothing but confirmation of that support in our meetings with Congresspeople and their staffs. We hope that we were able to offer arguments that they can use in convincing their colleagues to provide meaningful growth in LSC funding as the current federal budget cycle plays out.
The BBA has a unique story to tell on this issue, as we published a report in 2014 demonstrating that legal-aid funding actually provides a positive return on investment. Other states have since produced similar findings, but we were especially gratified to learn, in our meeting in Representative Joe Kennedy’s office, that the night before, at an LSC event at the Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan had cited the BBA’s report!
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
PSLF recently marked its 10-year anniversary, which should have meant that its earliest participants would be starting to see approval of their applications for debt forgiveness by now, and on a rolling basis going forward. However, the program has been plagued by numerous administrative problems—including lack of clarity on how to meet its requirements and mismanagement by the Department of Education and its private contractors—and, as a result, only a minuscule portion of applications have been approved.
Furthermore, political support for the program has waned, in part because of misleading estimates of its projected cost, and the White House has proposed ending it entirely. This outcome would not only break faith with those who thought they had been fulfilling all the program’s mandates but also threaten to make it more difficult for public-service employers—including not only legal-aid attorneys, public defenders, and prosecutors, but also nurses, first -responders, teachers, social workers, and many other professionals—to recruit and retrain qualified staff to carry out their mission.
To help with our cause in DC, we contacted several Boston Bar Foundation grantees, to ask them to share stories about how PSLF has affected their work, and what its elimination would mean. We heard back from several with powerful, personal stories about the sacrifices their staffers (or, in a couple of cases, directors) have made to pursue their commitment to working in the public interest, typically at much-lower salaries than they could obtain elsewhere.
One message we heard more than once, and conveyed in our meetings in Congress, is that in legal services (as elsewhere, presumably) it’s beneficial to have staff who mirror their clientele. In the absence of the federal government’s promise of assistance with student debt, it would be that much harder to meet that ideal.
As with our LSC advocacy, we found support in all the Congressional offices we visited. Senator Ed Markey sought to connect with the grantees we’d heard from, so that he could better use those stories to make the case for continuing PSLF. Representative Seth Moulton’s aide told us he wants to see the program not only retained but expanded. And Representative Jim McGovern’s staffer said he’s looking at the issue through the lens of student debt generally—with PSLF being just one step that needs to be taken to address it.
We’ll keep an eye on these two items throughout the budget process in Congress. And we’ll be back in DC next year for ABA Day 2020.
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association