AmeriCorps Backers Talk, Funding Chances Walk

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At the opening of last month’s filibuster in Washington to save 20,000 AmeriCorps positions, Candace Spiller stepped up to the podium, fresh off her first plane ride. The 19-year-old mother and AmeriCorps tutor was in the Dirksen Senate Office Building to represent the Mississippi Delta region, the third-poorest congressional district in the nation, which saw its AmeriCorps rolls cut this year from 270 to 60.

One hundred hours later, some 670 members of Congress, CEOs, youth workers and AmeriCorps alumni had said their piece, pleading with the Bush administration and Congress to appropriate $100 million for additional AmeriCorps volunteer positions this year.

Short of a legislative miracle, their mission will fail. But with hopes of higher funding for AmeriCorps in fiscal 2004, organizers of the 100 Hours of National Service Testimony say the five-day event may have laid the foundation for a more permanent network to promote national service.

The AmeriCorps crisis came to a head this year when its parent agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, was unable to fund the same number of positions as last year. The agency has overenrolled the program by a total of 42,866 positions since 1999.

Unless more money is appropriated to CNCS for this year, proponents say, some organizations will shut down before any fiscal 2004 funding comes through.

Supporters came from around the country to speak about the need for AmeriCorps volunteers. For news media attention, the high point came when Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) delivered a fiery noontime speech, calling President Bush on a promise she says he made to her husband, former President Clinton.

With each presidential transition, the former First Lady said, an outgoing president asks the president-elect to protect one of his projects. She said the first President Bush asked Clinton to keep his Points of Light program going.

“The only thing my husband asked President [George W.] Bush was to take care of AmeriCorps,” Clinton said. “That promise … has not been fulfilled.”

Sticking Together?

City Year took the lead in organizing the five days of testimony. (See “Inside the Fight to Save AmeriCorps,” September.) The Boston-based national service provider and policy advocate has a lot at stake: It stands to see its allotment of 1,000 AmeriCorps workers cut by more than half.

The event was funded by a $200,000 grant from Atlantic Philanthropies and an anonymous $50,000 from a family foundation.
Most organizers and committee members are confident that the network of 80 organizations that amassed in AmeriCorps’ defense will result in a more permanent advocacy group.

“There are discussions that are beginning to take place about some kind of entity that would be a permanent voice for national service,” said Gene Sofer, the Washington lobbyist who planted the seed for the network at a meeting last May. If any lesson has come of this debacle, said Sofer, “people have learned that it helps to be organized.”

Funds Unlikely

Prospects for a funding boost for this year have all but withered away. The 2003 supplemental spending bill was passed in late July with no discussion of AmeriCorps money in the House. The Senate had included more money for AmeriCorps in its own supplemental bill, but did not amend the House version, which ultimately was enacted.

A second supplemental package of $938 million moved through Congress in late September as part of the fiscal 2004 legislative appropriations bill. The Senate version included a $100 million AmeriCorps rider sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), but that rider did not make it into the final package.

Sofer said the best and probably only chance for this year is a big White House push. “If the president says, ‘I support expanding AmeriCorps and support a $100 million supplemental,’ that would lead to the money,” Sofer said.

The president has opted to promote an expansion for next year. White House spokesman Scott McClellan seemed almost to ignore questions about this year’s supplemental bill last month, responding to questions at a press conference in September by saying, “The president is continuing to work closely with Congress, and his fiscal 2004 budget calls for expanding AmeriCorps significantly.”

Bush seeks $433 million for AmeriCorps in his fiscal 2004 budget request, which the administration says would expand the program to 75,000 volunteers. (It is now capped at 50,000.) The House appropriations bill for CNCS would authorize about $345 million in fiscal 2004; the Senate version would authorize $340 million.