“Armies of Compassion” Plan Marches on Washington

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President Bush’s call for every American to serve 4,000 hours of community and national service may indeed unleash his “Armies of Compassion,” but developing the appropriate federal policies, infrastructure and legislation will be no easy task.

A flurry of activity around Washington last month revealed the sense of urgency to create an expanded service program – which will largely involve youth and young adults – and the many questions that have to be quickly answered.

One problem stems from organizing the different aspects of the proposal. The Bush plan has three primary components – AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and a new Citizen Corps – each under the authority of a different government agency. The service initiative would be overseen by the USA Freedom Corps, a presidential advisory committee structurally similar to the National Security Council and headed by John Bridgeland.

The proposed structure, with its similar sounding names, has confused some lawmakers and members of the service community.
“We do have a bit of a corps identity problem right now,” Leslie Lenkowsky, chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNS), told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee April 17. CNS oversees AmeriCorps.

But overall support for the proposal among the nation’s service leaders, organizations and CNS grantees is enthusiastic, which should help propel the plan into reality.

“This a wonderful and measurable goal that will have an effect on this country,” Alan Khazei, co-founder of the Boston-based service organization City Year, told a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee April 12.

Vital Details

One key step to implementing the Freedom Corps is reauthorizing the CNS. Authority for the agency, created in 1993, expired in late 1996. The programs have been funded annually since then through the appropriations process, with a total fiscal 2002 budget of nearly $739 million.

Community and national service leaders hope Congress will complete action on the reauthorization this month. “Our dream would be a bill-signing on the Fourth of July,” said CNS Press Secretary Sandy Scott.

Bush wants to expand most of the programs run by the CNS, as well as make administrative changes. In part, the Bush reauthorization proposal would boost participation in AmeriCorps – the principal program involving youth – from 50,000 to 75,000; increase flexibility for state use of AmeriCorps grant money; simplify the application process; make education payments to participants nontaxable; make states more accountable, and include more faith-based organizations.

He also proposed increasing the size of the Senior Corps – another CNS program – from 500,000 to 600,000 members; reducing the eligible participation age from 60 to 55; removing the income eligibility for participation; and allowing seniors to transfer education benefits of $1,000 to their grandchildren or other individuals.

Bush did not request increases for the CNS’ Learn and Serve America program, but proposed opening the program to organizations outside state educational agencies. He also proposed expanding the idea of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) by authorizing grants for similar programs run by public agencies and nonprofits to support public safety, health and emergency response efforts. The NCCC is a 10-month residential service program for youth that generally focuses on education, public safety, the environment and human needs.

The president also asked Congress to shift primary responsibility of selecting and supervising VISTA participants to community- and faith-based organizations, a structure similar to other AmeriCorps programs. Most VISTA programs already work closely with local organizations.

Overall, Bush requested a fiscal 2003 budget of more than $1 billion for the corporation.

Bush did not send Congress model legislation for reauthorizing the CNS, as he has done with other major policy initiatives such as education. Instead, the administration forwarded its “principles” of what the reauthorization should include.

Some members of Congress were working on legislation months before Bush released his proposal last month. Reps. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) introduced legislation (HR 3465) in December that would reauthorize the CNS and make many of the same changes to the agency that Bush proposed. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced identical legislation (S1792). Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who, as chairman of the Select Education Subcommittee, may also introduce legislation incorporating many of the administration’s proposals.

Many House Republicans opposed funding for the CNS before Bush embraced the Clinton-era program.

Another portion of the CNS reauthorization would change provisions of the federal Work-Study Program, which subsidizes college student jobs. Current law requires colleges to place 7 percent of their Work-Study students in community service positions. Bush proposed increasing that to 50 percent. The Senate and House bills would increase the community service requirement to 25 percent by fiscal 2011.

Reauthorization of the CNS is only one part of the Bush USA Freedom Corps. The administration proposal also would double the Peace Corps to 15,000 members over the next five years, with volunteers being sent to more Islamic nations and other nations the corps has not served. The Peace Corps would remain an independent agency.

The new Citizen Corps would work on homeland security issues, primarily at the local level. Volunteers would work with police, fire and rescue officials. Bush requested more than $230 million to establish the new corps, which would fall under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

That part of the plan has some lawmakers concerned, as Lenkowsky learned while testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

“Senator [Christopher S.] Bond and I have really serious yellow flashing lights about FEMA’s ability to use volunteers,” subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told Lenkowksy. Bond, of Missouri, is the ranking subcommittee Republican member.

That is the kind of detail that needs to be settled before Bush’s plan can be implemented. Another question is whether national service should be compulsory, like the former military draft.

‘Rich kids will opt out’

The Bush administration opposes requiring national service. “We think ‘volunteer’ means ‘willing’. That’s the Latin root of the word,” Lenkowsky said following a meeting with the Alliance for Children and Families in Washington, on April 16.

Community service leaders are divided on the issue. Many shared their opinions on April 12 at the John Gardner Conference on National Service, held at City Year’s new Washington office.

“A model of service that has a mandatory component sends a message of importance,” said William Galston, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (created with a two-year, $4.5 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts last year), based at the University of Maryland.

“In the absence of a mandatory requirement, I fear a lot of rich kids will opt out,” agreed Robert E. Litan, director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

Not only does the nation not have the infrastructure in place to make service mandatory, that concept does not have the support of the American youth who would be called to serve, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic political strategist and pollster. Lake surveyed youth about their opinions of national service.

“There’s a sense here [that] requiring service isn’t going to work,” Lake told participants at the service conference. According to the poll, a majority of young people (ages 18-24) would prefer incentives for service over salary, and think mandatory service is un-American.

They like the idea of community service, Lake said.

Proponents hope to capitalize on the increased patriotism and public interest that grew out of the Sept. 11 attacks. “The post 9/11 spirit is still alive,” Litan said.

“We have to seize the moment. If we seize it, we can look back on it and see that we changed America,” City Year’s Khazei said.

Contact: CNS (202) 606-5000, cns.gov; USA Freedom Corps (877) 872-2677, usafreedomcorps.gov; City Year (617) 927-2500, cityyear.org.