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Congress Sends Measure Expanding National Volunteer Service to Obama

3/18/2010

The U.S. House Tuesday approved the Senate-passed version of a bill to broadly expand the AmeriCorps national service program and increase its numbers to 250,000 over eight years. The measure now moves to President Barack Obama for his expected signature.

Leading the floor debate on the bill, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said that volunteering is “not a black or white or gray or blue or red issue. It’s an American issue.” He said the bill would provide volunteer opportunities for Americans “from middle school to retirement and beyond retirement.”

Several speakers noted that the bill is named the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The Democratic Massachusetts senator, who is battling brain cancer, was a leading coauthor of the legislation and is a brother of President John F. Kennedy, who called the nation to service in his 1961 inaugural address. The speakers also noted that Obama revived the call for service in his own inaugural address.

The House voted 275-149 to approve the Senate-passed version of the bill, in the process scrapping its own version rather than go to conference and work out differences between the two. The measure includes incentives for both older and younger Americans to get involved in volunteer activities—including financial grants and new or expanded programs.

The bill, which would increase AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 positions, is estimated to cost $5.7 billion over five years. Obama’s proposed budget for next year calls for more than $1.1 billion for national service programs, an increase of more than $210 million.

“National service is not a job or a career move for these individuals [who volunteer],” said Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a sponsor of the bill, during a Senate floor debate last week. “Indeed, no one is getting rich by participating in these programs. Those who join these programs are motivated to give back to this great country, to engage in their local communities and improve the lives of those in need.”

In his inaugural address, Obama started the legislative ball rolling with his stirring call to service, evoking comparisons to President Kennedy’s famous inaugural words 48 years earlier: “Ask what you can do for your country.” Obama said that Americans honor members of the military fighting in wars “not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service—a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment—a moment that will define a generation—it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all. For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

The bill would provide some kind of volunteer program for virtually all ages. Middle- and high-school students could enroll in a “Summer of Service” volunteer program and earn $500 toward college costs. At colleges, the government would award 25 grants to schools for programs that help students perform national service while they take classes. Ten percent of AmeriCorps funds would be reserved for organizations that engage those over age 55.

Older Americans would be eligible for several specific programs under the bill. The ServeAmerica fellowships would allow those over 55 to develop individual plans for community service. Silver Scholarships and Encore Fellowships would give older Americans a hand in breaking into new careers in public service. The awards would give grants of up to $1,000 for 500 hours of service, and the grants would be transferable to children or grandchildren.

The legislation has broad support in the volunteer community and across the spectrum of interest groups. “It is truly a national movement that has gotten behind this bipartisan measure here,” Hatch said.

After the House vote, Tom Nelson, AARP chief operating officer, said, “We congratulate Congress for passing legislation that will offer more opportunities to volunteers of all ages who wish to help tackle America’s most pressing problems by lending a hand in their neighborhoods and communities.”

John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures, a program targeted at retirees, said, “One of the breakthroughs in this legislation is that now national service will be for all people—people of all ages.”

At present, AmeriCorps volunteers can receive up to $4,725 to help pay for college or pay off student loans. the bill would increase that amount to $5,350.

It would also concentrate some efforts in low-income communities, according to House leaders, creating five kinds of service corps: clean energy, education, financial literacy, “healthy futures” (concentrating on preventive medicine) and “veterans service” (concentrating on reengaging returning veterans in their communities).

“Many of us present here today have participated in service in our lifetimes and, in giving back, we all got back more than we ever gave,” Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., another sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement last week. “This bill is not about programs. It’s about American values—the spirit of volunteerism and neighbor helping neighbor. By creating opportunities for Americans to participate in their society, this bill will make a major contribution to our country.”

Obama got his start as a community organizer in Chicago, and Mikulski broke into politics by organizing communities against a plan to build a 16-lane highway through Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood.

Unlike in the Senate, where Republicans overwhelmingly voted for the bill, only 26 House Republicans voted for the Senate version today. Although the House had hoped to have the bill ready for Obama to sign before he left for Europe this morning, complaints by Republicans about the way the bill was structured delayed passage until Air Force One was already in the air.

House Republicans complained that the Senate version was not clear enough in prohibiting any of the funds for volunteer programs from going to voter-registration groups or those that offer abortion counseling. Specifically, they cited the organization ACORN, which raised some controversy with its political organizing in the 2008 election.

The bill does have a provision that generally prohibits such expenditures. The version of the bill passed by the House two weeks ago contained a specific provision to prohibit such action.

Elaine S. Povich is a freelance writer who covers politics.

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