Report From Governmental Affairs
The ABA’s lobbying efforts have grown up since a modest start in 1957
Posted Apr 1, 2007 5:46 AM CST
By Rhonda McMillion
These days, no one on Capitol Hill blinks when representatives of the ABA show up to testify at congressional hearings on an array of issues affecting the justice system and the legal profession.
But 50 years ago, the ABA’s presence in Washington, D.C., was barely noticeable, and some association leaders considered it unseemly to engage in lobbying.
So when the Board of Governors hired Donald E. Channell in 1957 as the first director of the Washington office, his duties were restricted to helping ABA entities obtain information about legislation and maintaining a low-key liaison relationship with congressional committees. Lobbying still was not part of the job description.
But after establishing that beachhead in Washington, it was inevitable that the ABA would send in reinforcements, especially with so much happening on the federal government front as the Eisenhower years gave way to the more frenetic Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
One of the issues on which the ABA cut its teeth in Washington was ratification of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1967. The amendment clarified procedures for transferring executive powers when the president is unable to carry out the duties of office.
The ABA’s involvement in the debate over the 25th Amendment was primarily informational in nature. But a few years later, another issue-- legal assistance to the poor--went to the forefront of the ABA’s growing advocacy efforts in Washington. The issue continues to be a centerpiece of those efforts.
ONGOING COMMITMENT TO THE LSC
The first federal legal services program was introduced in the late 1960s as part of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency with primary responsibility for conducting the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty.” When the OEO was dismantled during the Nixon administration, putting many of its programs in jeopardy, the ABA mobilized efforts to preserve federal support for legal services to the poor.
Those efforts helped encourage Congress to create the Legal Services Corp. in 1974. The LSC is an independent entity charged with channeling money allocated by Congress to local offices around the country that provide civil legal services to the poor.
But the LSC has had a troubled existence. In the early 1980s, President Reagan pushed to have it dismantled. While the ABA successfully spearheaded opposition to that effort, advocating for adequate funding from Congress for the LSC has become practically an annual ritual for the ABA and the rest of the organized bar. Congress has allocated $348.7 million for the LSC in fiscal 2007, an increase over 2006 but still far short of the amount requested.
The ABA’s initial advocacy efforts on behalf of the LSC were directed by Herbert E. Hoffman, who succeeded Channell in 1974 as director of the ABA’s Washington office. Robert D. Evans was one of the ABA staff lobbyists who helped coordinate the association’s efforts to fight the first and most concerted government attempt to eliminate the LSC during the early 1980s. When Hoffman retired in 1982, Evans was named as director of the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office.
Evans continued in that position for 25 years—adding the title of associate executive director for the Governmental Affairs and Public Services Group—until he announced last year that he would retire at the end of February. It was during Evans’ quarter-century at the GAO helm that the ABA’s advocacy efforts in Washington came to maturity.
A key addition to the association’s lobbying arsenal during Evans’ watch was ABA Day in Washington—now actually a two-day event, next scheduled for April 18-19—when bar leaders from around the U.S. meet with members of Congress to discuss issues of concern to the legal community. Another important vehicle is the Grassroots Action Team, through which some 10,000 ABA members and other bar leaders communicate with legislators on issues of interest to the bar. The GAO’s lobbying staff has grown to 10 people.
A NONPARTISAN APPROACH
Evans emphasizes that the ABA, which lobbies on more than 100 issues during each Congress, has achieved its success on Capitol Hill without the benefit of a political action committee. But the ABA has made it a point to stay out of electoral politics, he notes.
“We are strictly nonpartisan,” Evans says, “and I think we have profited from that status. We rely on the quaint notion of arguing on the merits of the issues through our grassroots system.”
The ABA’s legislative priorities for the coming year were confirmed by the Board of Governors in February at the midyear meeting.
The priorities will be access to legal education, access to legal services, preservation of civil liberties while fighting terrorism, health care law, immigration, independence of the legal profession and the judiciary, improvements to the criminal justice system, strengthening the rule of law around the world, tax simplification and youth at risk.
It’s an ambitious agenda, but now typical. “The ABA,” says Evans, “has been and remains a vital voice in the nation’s capital on issues affecting law, the legal profession and the justice system.”
This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.
Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.