Respond to this Article March 2003

What Ever Happened to National Service?

How a Bush policy pledge quietly disappeared.

By Richard Just

On Jan. 29, 2002, President Bush stood before Congress and delivered to a shaken nation the first State of the Union speech after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In that speech, Bush acknowledged that through the brave example of America's response a new era of service to one's nation had begun. "In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like," Bush said. "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self."

There were good reasons to offer these words. For all the praise Bush had received in the months since September 11, one criticism was beginning to sting: that the only thing he'd asked Americans to do for the war effort was go shopping. Indeed, Bush's nemesis, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), had already introduced with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) the Call to Service Act, a bill to expand fivefold the popular AmeriCorps program that is the centerpiece of civilian national service, and to authorize short-term military tours to boost enlistment in the armed services. In a political masterstroke, Bush surprised his critics, and many supporters, by proposing an even wider-ranging plan to support and expand national service, called USA Freedom Corps.

Freedom Corps was one of the most well received policies put forth in Bush's address. His plan sought to increase the ranks of groups such as AmeriCorps by 200,000 people. And, most dramatically, the president called on all Americans to serve. "My call tonight," Bush intoned, "is for every American to commit at least two years--4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime--to the service of your neighbors and your nation." It was an effort, as Bush himself put it, "to sustain and extend the best that has emerged in America." The Freedom Corps office was created by executive order to act as a clearinghouse that would match the thousands of new volunteers Bush called for with the thousands of new volunteer opportunities he promised to create by expanding AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and Senior Corps.

Bush's plan drew praise from the president's supporters and critics alike. Not only was he touting an idea that had renewed significance to all Americans; national service also promised to be the rare issue that would transcend partisan political squabbling. Indeed, on the nationwide tour he conducted following his State of the Union address, Bush promised as much, pledging in a speech delivered in Winston-Salem, N.C., "I look forward to working with Senator McCain and Senator Bayh of Indiana to get this legislation through the Congress."

Yet one year later, with Osama bin Laden still very much at large and war with Iraq looming, Bush's vision for national service is not much closer to realization than it was at the moment he proposed it. AmeriCorps went unauthorized for a fifth straight year. Bush's national service bill never even made it to the floor of Congress. And the effort to "sustain and extend" the spirit of national purpose and unity has largely fallen by the wayside. Bush himself implicitly admitted as much. Instead of the soaring patriotic rhetoric that accompanied its introduction in last year's speech, Freedom Corps received no more than a fleeting mention in this year's address. All of which raises a puzzling question: How is it that an issue championed by a popular wartime president, favored by the vast majority of Americans, and supported by both parties has floundered so badly?

Selling Service

The popular consensus on the merit of national service that greeted Bush's speech didn't always exist. In its current incarnation, the idea of dramatically bolstering or even requiring civilian and military service for America's youth originated with a group of centrist Democrats in the 1980s loosely centered around the Democratic Leadership Council.

Initiatives backed by the national service movement, such as a 1989 attempt by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) to tie federal financial aid for college students to service requirements, initially fell flat, drawing the ire of both the left and the right. But in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton chose to make civilian service a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Not only was the idea well received, Clinton found that it was his biggest applause line on the stump. Shortly after assuming office, Clinton introduced a civilian service bill like the one he'd campaigned on. However, it quickly ran into a buzz saw of resistance from the increasingly powerful House Republicans, who derided it as an example of costly, unnecessary government bureaucracy.

So Clinton had to settle for a modest and affordable iteration of civilian service that became the AmeriCorps program. The program was designed to place members, most of them college age, with local and national nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, the American Red Cross, and the Boys and Girls Club of America. Though its initial prospects looked dim, AmeriCorps proved a great success. Since 1994 more than 200,000 members have served by tutoring school children, building low-income housing, and helping to repair communities in the aftermath of natural disaster. By the time Clinton left office, AmeriCorps numbered 50,000 annually and had become a favorite of state governors, who loved the program because it provided free workers in badly needed areas. AmeriCorps even won over many conservatives, including the governor of Texas at the time, George W. Bush, who was one of 49 of the 50 governors in 2000 who sent a letter to Congress asking that the program be maintained. Among its other converts was McCain, who had originally voted against AmeriCorps but came to embrace the value of national service and push it energetically on the campaign trail (see "Putting the National in National Service," by Sen. John McCain, The Washington Monthly, October 2001).

Following the 2000 election, the national service movement appeared to be gaining momentum. Longtime proponents like the policy intellectuals at the DLC sought an alliance with an informal assemblage of likeminded "national greatness" conservatives, such as McCain, and a handful of Bush aides, including domestic policy adviser John Bridgeland and chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. The McCain-Bayh bill, introduced in November 2001, sought to increase AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots, create 18-month military enlistments, and require more college students who receive federal financial aid to perform community service in exchange. For once, the politics of national service seemed correctly aligned--in addition to bipartisan support, the outpouring of patriotism that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks seemed to further bolster its chances.

But throughout the 1990s--and even after September 11 and Bush's State of the Union speech--there remained a core group of conservatives in the House, led by Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who never came around to supporting AmeriCorps, and never stopped trying to kill it. Last February, Armey called Bush's plan to expand AmeriCorps "obnoxious" and implied that he would fight efforts to move it through Congress. "We give least well when we give at the direction and supervision of the government, you know, and the idea that government can teach charity to America rings very hollow with me," Armey threatened in The Washington Times. And, though it was politically unpopular to say so, many House Republicans agreed with Armey. "There is this leftover notion with the hardcore right-wing," says Mark Kornblau, spokesman for Sen. Bayh, "that this is somehow associated with Bill Clinton."

As a result, nothing resembling Bush's plan or the McCain-Bayh bill ever made it as far as the House floor. After much squabbling, a watered down version sponsored by Reps. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Tim Roemer (D-Colo.) did make it out of committee. But even though its sponsors expected it to pass by a three-to-one margin, Armey refused to schedule it for a vote. "To a lot of people who don't know Washington, it's a surprise that the majority leader has the power to single-handedly stop a bill," says one Democratic House aide. But that, he adds, is exactly what Armey did.

Of course, a White House as powerful as this one could have changed Armey's mind. But it chose not to try. And as David Broder of The Washington Post pointed out in a September column, when the White House sent its "must-pass list" of priorities to the Republican leadership last summer, the Citizen Service Act was not on it. Says one Democratic Senate aide who supported the legislation, "One phone call from the president to the House leadership could have gotten this done last year or at least sent it on its way." Without support from the White House--and none was forthcoming--a plan that just months earlier had appeared to be a sure thing died quietly without ever coming to a vote.

The only facet of the McCain-Bayh bill that did become law was short-term military enlistments, and only through some savvy legislative maneuvering on the part of its authors. McCain tacked the proposal--known as the 18-24-18 plan for its creation of 18-month enlistments followed by 24 months of reserve duty and an $18,000 stipend--to the larger defense authorization bill which was passed by Congress and signed by the president. Only because McCain holds a prominent position on the Senate Armed Services Committee and because the White House did not want to fight with him publicly did the enlistment plan pass. "We are delighted--but stunned," admitted Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is aligned with the DLC. Thus, the one modest advance of national service happened without any help from the administration. Says Kornblau, "[Bush] has yet to use the political capital of the White House or his sway with House Republicans to actually push something through."

Bush's Corps Problem

So why hasn't there been more of an outcry? Why hasn't Bush been taken to task for adopting the mantle of national service and then dropping it even as he tells the nation to prepare for war?

One reason is because national service is one of those peculiar Washington issues that enjoys broad support but has few vocal advocates. For all the good they have accomplished, the more than 200,000 Americans who have served in AmeriCorps have not organized into an effective lobbying organization as military veterans have. As such, they don't constitute a politically active constituency, like seniors do on Medicare and prescription drugs, or as big business does on tax cuts. Bush and his fellow politicians therefore don't fear a voter backlash when they don't manage to get the job done. In Washington, it takes an honest commitment and belief in the value of national service on its own merits to get it passed--and that is something the president has so far lacked.

There are a handful of people in the Bush administration who are still fighting to get national service passed, including Les Lenkowsky, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps. But as Karl Rove no doubt recognizes, because national service is broadly supported but narrowly understood, it is an issue where 90 percent of the political gain is to be found in the pomp and procedure of announcing one's support for it and basking in the praise from colleagues, voters, and the media that immediately follows. This is exactly what Bush did. And it is why he can get away with saying, as he did in this year's State of the Union address, "Last year, I called on my fellow citizens to participate in the USA Freedom Corps, which is enlisting tens of thousands of new volunteers across America." What Bush left out--and what no one thought to challenge him with--is the fact that these tens of thousands of volunteers cannot sign up for the more than 100,000 new slots he promised to create in AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Peace Corps, because Bush never spent the political capital to get them passed into law. And because he hasn't pushed Congress to appropriate sufficient funding for it, AmeriCorps was forced to stop enrolling new volunteers last November.

In fact, the most evident manifestation of USA Freedom Corps these days can be found at movie theaters, where trailers by celebrities such as New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera and actress Angie Harmon still tout the virtues of Bush's ambitious--but as yet unrealized--vision. Most Americans could be forgiven for not realizing that the majority of their president's grand plan has never come to fruition.

Of course, with a new Congress in session and Dick Armey retired, there is always another chance that Bush will, however belatedly, follow through on his pledge and work with McCain to expand opportunities for national service. Former Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Penn.), the onetime head of the Corporation for National and Community Service and an elder statesman of the civilian service movement, believes Bush's commitment is real. "I don't have any doubt at all that the president wants it to go through," Wofford says. But with Armey gone and Republicans now controlling both houses of Congress, he notes, Bush's "hand is much stronger than it was last year." Another way to put this is that the White House is running out of excuses. If Bush still believes, as he put it in his last State of the Union address, that "Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service ... we can overcome evil with greater good," he will have to stand up and show it.

Richard Just is editor of The American Prospect Online.


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