In the beginning there was compassionate conservatism, which begat the Armies of Compassion, which begat the faith-based initiative, which begat the USA Freedom Corps. More than six biblical days in the making, the newly anointed Corps is the latest manifestation of a 16-month evolution by President George Bush from vague campaign promises to the act of governmental creation. The Bush administration’s divine plan for citizen involvement in solving the nation’s domestic ills and repelling foreign threats was revealed by President Bush in his State of the Union address. Said the president, “To sustain and extend the best that has emerged in America, I invite you to join the new USA Freedom Corps.”
The USA Freedom Corps’ proposed $560 million package includes a new Citizen Corps aimed at enhancing preparedness for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. The Peace Corps will double to near its historical high of 15,000 (reached in June 1966). The centerpiece of the USA Freedom Corps’ youth-related effort is a major expansion of programs run by the Corporation for National and Community Service. CNS was created in 1993 by an amalgamation of old and new domestic service programs including VISTA, run by holdover Matt Dunn, and AmeriCorps, led since November by Rosie Mauk, the former national chair of the Camp Fire and the Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. Under the White House plan, VISTA would grow from 6,500 to 7,000 members and participants in AmeriCorps from its current 50,000 to 75,000. Slated for a 40 percent increase, to $35 million, is the residential National Civilian Community Corps, headed by retired Col. Fred Peters.
Faith and Freedom
On the wane even before Sept. 11 is the president’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative. Its White House office, once envisioned as a sort of American version of the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, was led until August by John DiIulio. The now nearly invisible White House office has been headed since early February by James Towey, the founder of Aging With Dignity. Attorney Towey spent 12 years as legal counsel to Mother Theresa and a year as a full-time volunteer at her D.C. program for people with AIDS. He is no novice to politics or social service issues. He worked for former Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and ran the Florida Department of Health and Social Services for the late Gov. Lawton Chiles (D).
Towey inherits from DiIulio a game plan for action in the form of a 25-page report “Unlevel Playing Field: Barriers to Participation by Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Federal Social Service programs” (www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/08/unlevelfield.html). The report takes aim at the nation’s large established social service providers, noting, “Despite the vast, varied, and vital community-serving role of these diverse, sacred, and secular grassroots groups” caught on the wrong side of the report’s purported barrier, “when the Federal Government reaches out for partners to help fulfill the Nation’s social agenda, it mainly ignores them. The nonprofit organizations that administer social services funded by Washington are typically large and entrenched, in an almost monopolistic fashion.”
Then came 9/11’s murderous sneak attacks. Only a month after the DiIulio report was released, the president gathered those same “large and entrenched … almost monopolistic” national groups for a pep talk, saying, “Large and small, these important charitable efforts are saving lives and, as importantly, are restoring hope.” So ended, after a single month, any real White House effort to radically retool the social service provider terrain. For the Bush administration, evolution, not revolution, would best serve “homeland security.”
Restoring faith in the White House faith-based office will not be easy for Towey. The day after DiIulio’s departure, the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition (and a early supporter of the Bush initiative) told reporters, “The departure of John DiIulio means George Bush officially becomes the president of white America” and the White House office “will just be a financial watering hole for the right-wing white evangelists.”
That was enough for the White House to propel Rivers protégé, the Rev. Mark Scott, along with colleague Lisa Cummins, from the faith-based office to CNS, four blocks away. The transfer proved prescient. As a venue to plot the Bush administration’s domestic jihad, CNS offers the most fertile federal ground for faith-based missionary work. AmeriCorps’ 50,000 and VISTA’s 6,500 members are among the most quickly deployable (or redeployable) staff (out of 1.8 million non-postal civilians on the non-defense federal payroll) able to implement faith-centered initiatives or other duties as assigned by the USA Freedom Corps.
At the White House, John Bridgeland, a former staffer for GOP rising star Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, was charged by the president with devising a plan to mobilize the home front Armies of Compassion against terrorism.
The flaky plan calls for each American to provide at least 4,000 hours or two years of community service over a lifetime. Those rallying to the colors were urged to call (877) USA-Corps and sign up for whatever. Of course, no one at the White House bothered to figure out the details, leaving local volunteer centers, most associated with the Points of Light Foundation (POL), clueless about the new USA Volunteer Corps’ implementation strategy.
One component is “the Citizen Corps – engaging Citizen in Homeland Security,” which will set up state and local Citizen Corps Councils with the help, beginning in October, of a requested $144 million appropriation. Also, USA Freedom Corps awards will be issued to outstanding participants. If this is beginning to sound like the mission of POL, you’re on to something. Founded in 1989 by President George Bush the elder, it’s already doing (or so it claims) some of what the White House is busy reinventing.
Shortly after the president released his ambitious plan – which most significantly fully embraces national service and its promotion as a top domestic priority – a delighted CNS board took up the particulars. Briefing them was Bridgeland, now designated as an assistant to the president and executive director of the USA Freedom Corps. He discussed his new assignment to the 10-member CNS board (chaired by former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith) and the agency’s CEO, Les Lenkowsky. Bridgeland quoted Sen. Robert F. Kennedy by saying: “In service we find happiness.” He candidly called the new Freedom Corps White House office “a coordinating council,” slated to have a budget of $2.6 million.
For AmeriCorps, at least, the White House plans couldn’t be better. The president wants to increase its budget by $167 million to $439.6 million. Among a number of positive adjustments proposed in AmeriCorps’ administration is one allowing senior citizens to transfer their $4,725 Education Award for a year of full-time service to a grandchild or other youth for several purposes, including school tuition. Singled out by the White House as a model for effective partnership and on hand to follow Bridgeland to the CNS speaker’s chair was a representative of Teach for America, now ensconced in the CNS budget with a $1 million congressional earmark. AmeriCorps and VISTA, says the White House overview of Bridgeland’s mission, “will expand and reshape” in order to mesh its work with faith-based organizations.
The ultimate fate of both the USA Volunteer Corps and the White House’s faith-based initiative is in the hands of Congress. Bipartisan support for the continuation of CNS and its expansion is high on Capitol Hill. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) introduced the Call to Service Act, which seeks to boost participation in CNS programs to 250,000 by 2010. Even among traditionally hostile House Republicans, the virtual endorsement by the president of CNS’ reauthorization scheduled for this session of Congress has dampened opposition. Still, an Armey of one (as in House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas) continued his attack on CNS, declaring at a press conference, “I do not understand why anyone would embrace AmeriCorps. I think the conceptual framework of AmeriCorps is obnoxious.” But by that day’s end Armey was in retreat, issuing a press release saying AmeriCorps was merely “flawed” and “needs to be fundamentally reformed.”
Still, the Bush administration’s yet-to-be-unveiled bill, the Civilians Service Act of 2002, which will reauthorize CNS for five years, has excellent prospects for passage during this otherwise contentious election year.
Not so the faith-based gambit that was the original White House domestic social welfare priority. The House-passed Community Solutions Act of 2001 was dead on arrival in the Senate. In February the White House reached a compromise with Senate negotiators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) that junks controversial House-passed provisions, including allowing faith-based groups an exemption from employment discrimination laws. Most of what’s left are window dressing and “Charitable Choices” tax breaks.
But several federal departments are already rolling out “faith-based” initiatives. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), involving faith groups has been the policy since welfare reform became law in 1996, giving HUD a head start on ill-conceived programming ideas and inevitable scandal. For example, a HUD deal with D.C.-based Church Association for Community Service (CACS) just went kaput. It was praised at a July press conference by HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, calling CACS “exactly what President Bush means when he points to faith that works.”
In reality, the effort to turn abandoned HUD-owned houses into affordable housing for the working poor was simply farmed out to a for-profit company whose fees, and CACS’s overhead, added $39,000 on average to the final cost of each dwelling. Careful what you pray for – even if it is a replacement corps.