All that volunteerism? Apparently, it's too Democratic, even though Republicans led the 2009 Senate action that more than doubled the number of AmeriCorps members. Or maybe it's just too Northwestern an idea.
Sargent Shriver was the consummate public servant and pop to the Peace Corps (along with Hubert Humphrey, who merits a long-overdue hat tip). When Shriver died in January, former Republican speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote, "His restless idealism, his serious faith, his belief in the power of engaged citizenship, have been an inspiration to generations. And the institutions he shaped will serve the poor and struggling for generations to come."
Gerson mostly got it right. The Peace Corps will continue to serve the poor and the struggling for generations to come.
Its domestic counterpart, AmeriCorps, however, may soon get the hatchet.
The U.S. House's H.R. 1, a measure that's a grab-bag of draconian budget whacks, would shutter the Corporation for National and Community Service and its various programs such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Learn & Serve America, and VISTA. It's a partisan slam of an inherently nonpartisan program. Had he been re-elected, President George H.W. Bush hoped to midwife his Points of Light initiative into what is now AmeriCorps. Instead it fell to President Clinton to elevate national service, subsequently branding the Scarlet "D" on AmeriCorps.
Fortunately the program's return on investment was meaningful enough that, over time, partisanship fell away. It culminated with the 2009 passage of the Serve America Act, which more than doubled the number of AmeriCorps members. Its two shepherds in the U.S. Senate were — partisans, take note — Orrin Hatch and John McCain.
In Washington state alone, H.R. 1 will zero-out $38.5 million dollars and remove more than 3,000 national-service participants from community and faith-based organizations. That number doesn't include 420 foster grandparents and 257 senior companions as well as thousands of kids who benefit from Learn and Serve America. If the Senate gives its assent, this measure will immediately extinguish or hinder service programs from Seattle to Wenatchee to Spokane.
It's all disappointing because in DC-wonk vernacular, the Corporation for National and Community Service is "budget dust." Instead of means testing or evaluating outcomes, it's deemed nonessential and given the heave-ho. There are wiser ways to balance the federal budget, of course, beginning with a laser-like analysis of those departments with colossal expenses and redundant services. (No hints, but consider starting with that large, five-walled building across the Potomac in Arlington).
H.R. 1 may call for some volunteer-driven jingoism: a citizen-volunteer culture is after all part of the Northwest's social fabric. Washington state contributes one of the highest number of volunteers per capita to AmeriCorps, many hailing from local colleges and universities (the UW also remains the number-one campus for Peace Corps recruitment). Giving back is a natural extension of Mother Joseph and the Sisters of Providence, dang it. The Northwest is a public-service heavyweight. Or was.
True, the sun will rise tomorrow and, hopefully, the day after that even if the U.S. Senate or President Obama doesn't sprint to the rescue of national service. In the meantime it feels like a reprise of the 1975 New York Daily News headline, "Congress to AmeriCorps: DROP DEAD."