Making Appropriations for Science, the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, and Related Agencies for Fiscal Year 2006-- Continued

By:  Barack Obama II
Date: Sept. 8, 2005
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President. I rise in strong support of the amendment offered by Senator Harkin to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation. I am proud to be a cosponsor of the amendment.

The Legal Services Corporation provides vital legal assistance to the poor around the country. It was created in 1974 with bipartisan congressional sponsorship and the support of the Nixon administration.

In Chicago, the Legal Services Corporation funds make it possible for the Legal Assistance Foundation to help my constituents navigate the foster care system and receive compensation after violent crimes. In Galesburg and Peoria, these funds make it possible for the Prairie State Legal Services organization to help people dealing with domestic violence issues and elder abuse.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, you can bet that Legal Services Corporation will be in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the many States where hurricane victims are being relocated helping newly impoverished citizens obtain food and shelter assistance, health care and insurance benefits, unemployment insurance, Social Security benefits, and FEMA assistance.

This program makes a real difference in people's lives. Take the story of Irene and her family for example, who live in Section 8 housing and needed help. They visited the Prairie State Legal Services office in Illinois. Every day, Irene had to get two wheelchair-bound grandchildren up the stairs and into a second floor apartment. Both her grandchildren have cerebral palsy and are confined to wheelchairs. The oldest is now 14 and weighs 160 lbs. And after 11 years, as I am sure you can imagine, Irene was having a hard time getting her grandchildren up those stairs. But when she tried to make this difficult situation better, it only got worse.

Irene applied for and received a transfer certificate from Section 8 to allow her to move to a new apartment. But she could not find a first-floor apartment to transfer to within the 60 days that the transfer allowed. Irene tried calling the Section 8 offices to let them know of the delay, but she was forced to leave messages. When she finally sent a letter asking for a response to her messages, she was informed that she was too late--not only was the Public Housing Agency terminating her transfer, it was also terminating the Section 8 subsidy for her current apartment.

But that is when Prairie State and Legal Services Corporation intervened. A staff attorney represented Irene in an administrative appeal, and pointed out that under the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Irene had not been provided the support needed to assist her in finding an apartment. As a result of her attorney's efforts, Irene's subsidy was reinstated, she was given a new transfer certificate and was provided with active assistance in helping her find a new apartment.

Legal Services Corporation helps folks like Irene all across the country, from South Carolina to South Dakota, Illinois to Iowa. And when someone displaced by Hurricane Katrina cannot afford a lawyer but is having trouble getting her unemployment insurance or Social Security benefits, or getting her utilities turned back on, Legal Services Corporation will be right there. Legal Services Corporation-funded organizations have won dozens of awards, and groups ranging from AARP to the American Bar Association have voiced their strong support of LSC. We should do the same.

Over the last decade, the LSC budget has suffered $196 million in cuts. The Appropriations Committee proposed this year to cut $6 million more. I do not think this is the time to deny legal services to those who need them most. I believe that in light of the pressing crises confronting individuals in the gulf coast, we should be increasing funding for the Legal Services Corporation, not decreasing it. So I strongly support Senator Harkin's amendment, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.

Mr. WYDEN. Mr. President, I rise today in support of the amendment introduced by my colleague, Senator HARKIN, from Iowa, which would increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation by $38.2 million to $363 million.

If there was ever a time to provide adequate funding for legal services for the poor, that time is now.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there will be thousands and thousands of Americans in desperate need of legal advice who lack the resources to hire their own attorneys or the skills necessary to meet the legal challenges they must confront.

These are the same folks that didn't have the means to get out of harm's way when the hurricane struck.

These are the same folks that waited for days on their rooftops, at the New Orleans Convention Center, the Superdome, and so many other places down on the Gulf Coast to be rescued.

These are the same folks that now must rebuild their lives--often times from scratch.

They will need legal assistance. Congress needs to step in and help make this a reality. And Congress needs to step and increase funding so that the thousands of other Americans--in addition to the victims of Katrina--who are unable to afford legal advice get the access to justice that they deserve.

How can it be, in a country where we teach our children from an early age the Pledge of Allegiance and its closing words--``with liberty and justice for all''--so many children and their families cannot obtain equal access to justice?

How can it be, in a country that saw an historic economic boom in the last decade, that 80 percent of low-income Americans still lack access to a lawyer when they're in serious legal situations?

How can it be, in a country as strong and rich as this one, that tens of thousands of Americans who need legal representation are turned away every year because their Government won't support the very program designed to help them?

This year, the House has appropriated only $324.5 million in funding for Legal Services. The current version of the Senate CJS Appropriations bill funds the program at about the same level.

This is less than Legal Services received in FY 2005. It's almost $40 million less than the FY 2006 budget request made by the bipartisan Legal Services Corporation Board of Directors. In fact, the current level of funding is not much more than it was in 1981--in real dollars.

The issues that Legal Aid works to address are not esoteric legal questions. They are issues of life and death and food and shelter.

When folks who are already hurting can't get the legal representation they need, all too often it gets harder to put food on the table and harder to pay the rent and harder to get the medicine for the kids or for Grandma.

In the State of Oregon, the need for legal aid is clear, and the choice to fund it should be obvious. Oregon's Legal Aid programs are the primary source of representation available to more than 500,000 low-income folks in my State, and they assist 20,000 of those low-income Oregonians every year.

But because of Legal Aid funding shortfalls in recent years, the Oregon programs have had to layoff staff, cut salaries for remaining staff, slash their medical benefits, freeze vacancies, and close the Klamath Falls office. Less than 20 percent of low income Oregonians have access to an attorney who could make a critical difference in helping them deal with a legal issue--from a getting restraining order from an abusive boyfriend to helping a predatory lending victim.

The idea that Legal Aid is the practice of political law is preposterous.

It's simply making sure that legal services are available for the very people who need them most.

Make no mistake--State, local and private resources are providing the vast majority of Legal Aid funding in Oregon and elsewhere. In 1980, Federal funding accounted for 80 percent of the total legal aid money in Oregon. In 2005, Federal funding accounts for 28 percent. Everyone else is doing their part to provide these folks with equal access to justice--it's time that the Federal Government did its part too.

I am determined that the victims of Hurricane Katrina and poor Americans throughout the United States, who, as children, stood in their classrooms with their hands over their hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the words ``with liberty and justice for all'' will not find out those words were a lie.

I am determined that the victims of Hurricane Katrina living in the Houston Astrodome will have legal help they need when applying for food stamps and other forms of assistance available to them.

I am determined that the victims of Hurricane Katrina relocated to San Antonio will get legal help they need to deal with their insurance companies.

I am determined that the victims of Hurricane Katrina spread all across the country will get the legal assistance they need to rebuild their homes--and their lives.

With Federal, State and local partners working together, we can ensure equal access to the law for all Americans, including the thousands and thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina.

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