Less than three months after he took office, and seven months after a large New York send-off, much of President Barack Obama's volunteer service program - centered on bulking up AmeriCorps to 250,000 participants, with service opportunities virtually from cradle to grave - appeared late last month to be headed toward passage and his desk for a signature.
Two similar bills - the Serve America Act in the Senate, and the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act (GIVE) in the House - were the focus of a flurry of activity, including a committee hearing and floor debates in both chambers.
What remains unclear is exactly how the legislation would affect funding for AmeriCorps. During the presidential campaign, Obama called for tripling the size of AmeriCorps (which has funding for 75,000 volunteers per year), and he reiterated that stance in his administration's March 6 letter to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) setting forth its views on the two bills.
Neither of the bills contains an appropriation; instead, they would reauthorize and expand the focus of the programs and the number of volunteers needed.
During the campaign, Obama's staff estimated that his entire service program would cost about $1.1 billion a year; the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the cost of the GIVE Act at $6 billion over five years and the Serve America Act at almost that much.
Unlike most youth-related legislation on Capitol Hill, these measures have significant political clout behind them. For one thing, an unusual number of Senate and House members can claim to be behind the movement to expand national service.
Kennedy and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) began work on the Serve America Act two years ago and introduced it last fall, with Obama as one of the original co-sponsors. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced his own legislation, much of which has been incorporated into the Serve America Act.
Also helping the cause is that many senators see Serve America as part of the legacy of Kennedy, who is struggling with cancer but made an unexpected appearance on the Senate floor to vote so that his bill could move to the full Senate.
There has been intense lobbying on behalf of the two bills, much of it directed by ServiceNation, the coalition of service providers that began its push for the legislation at last fall's ServiceNation Summit in New York City. Like that summit, much of the advocacy for passage has come from Be the Change Inc., headed by long-time Obama ally Alan Khazei. (See "Party Service," October.)
But while there is broad bipartisan support for the bills, they also have severe critics.
Debates and Votes
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) complained during the House debate on GIVE last month that it would compete with private charities; others said it was more a jobs bill than a service measure. In the Senate debate, Hatch responded to that criticism by pointing out that the current stipend provided to most AmeriCorps volunteers is less than the minimum wage and below poverty level. He also stressed that the AmeriCorps members tend to supervise volunteers, thus leveraging the number of total volunteers almost 30 times.
The House passed GIVE in mid-March. The Senate later approved its bill. The differences need to be worked out in conference.
First, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on Serve America, at which no one voiced opposition. The hardest question lobbed at the panel was by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) - dubbed the "godmother" of public service legislation - who asked, seemingly rhetorically, if the agencies had the capacity to increase AmeriCorps to 250,000 by 2014.
The corporation "would not go to 250,000 overnight," replied Corporation for National and Community Service Chairman Alan Solomont, noting that instead it would "establish a glide path to get there."
When it came time for the full Senate to debate the measure, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) argued that the act represents "what's wrong with America" because it will enlarge the government. He said the bill would set up the equivalent of the 14th-largest company in the country, and that no entity is prepared to manage such a large venture.
Mikulski countered that the swelling ranks of AmeriCorps would be strategically designed to address such problems as green energy, health, education, and veterans' services. Each area would become a separate corps under the broad umbrella of AmeriCorps. Mikulski also contended that with unemployment rates soaring, especially among youth, the new programs are needed to give young people a chance to better themselves while serving their country.
The Senate approved its bill in late March, 79-19, leaving a conference committee to work out the differences in the House and Senate versions.
What Would Expand
In addition to young people, the new corps would provide service opportunities for seniors, teachers, scientists, engineers, accounting and Internet technology professionals, and others not contemplated in the original service legislation passed almost two decades ago.
High school students would be able to give a summer of service and in return get a $500 educational stipend.
The education grant that AmeriCorps volunteers receive after their service would be increased from the current maximum of $4,750 to be pegged to Pell Grants, which will rise to more than $6,000 in 2011.
Volunteers who earn education awards would be able to transfer them to family members. For example, senior citizens could use the awards themselves or transfer them to a child or grandchild.
The Senate bill would create a National Service Reserve Corps, comprising current AmeriCorps and other service program volunteers and alumni, who can be deployed quickly during times of natural disasters and other emergencies.
The Obama administration has singled out its support for the Community Solutions Funds grant program, which would provide seed money for social entrepreneurs to test new volunteer service programs.
"This will fuel the spirit of entrepreneurship in the nonprofit sector and foster and support the next generation of new programs, such as the U.S. Dream Academy, City Year and Teach for America," Hatch said.