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Senate Passes Bill to Expand National Volunteer Service

In a rare display of bipartisanship and with a deep bow to President Barack Obama’s call to service in his inaugural address, the Senate last night approved a bill to broadly expand the AmeriCorps national service program.

The measure, the Serve America Act, brought together the generations rallied by Obama and President John F. Kennedy and included incentives for both older and younger Americans to get involved in volunteer activities—including financial grants and new or expanded programs. The bill would increase AmeriCorps from its current 75,000 positions to 250,000 over the next eight years.

“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 Thursday. “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.”

The Senate measure is similar to one approved overwhelmingly by the House last week. The House bill, called the GIVE Act, would add 175,000 participants to AmeriCorps and other national service programs. The Senate measure is estimated to cost $5.7 billion over five years, while the House version is an estimated $6 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.

Congress hopes to have a compromise version of the bill on the president’s desk as soon as next week, and Obama has pledged to sign it.

In his inaugural address, Obama started the legislative ball rolling with his stirring call to service, evoking comparisons to 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 Senate bill, which was approved 79-19, 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 bill 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.

Tom Nelson, AARP chief operating officer, said his 40 million-member organization ”applauds the Senate for passing legislation that speaks to what is best about America: the opportunity to serve others in neighborhoods and communities across the country. Our members stand ready to give, and offer a lifetime of acquired skills that can meet a range of local needs. The Serve America Act helps activate this cadre of potential volunteers and offers the sort of opportunities that people aged 50+ are looking for.”

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. Both the Senate and House bills would increase that amount to $5,350.

Although fighting brain cancer, Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., came to the Senate floor for the final vote last evening. The appearance of Kennedy, former President Kennedy’s brother and a leading coauthor of the legislation, crystallized the symbolism of the moment. His colleagues cheered loudly and renamed the legislation the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

The bill concentrates some efforts in low-income communities, 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. “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.

Although the bill passed overwhelmingly, it was not without controversy. Several senators complained that some “volunteer” organizations actually lobby Congress or otherwise get involved in politics and sought to prevent that from happening. Specifically, they cited the organization ACORN, which raised some controvery with its political organizing in the 2008 election.

 The House version of the bill contains a specific provision to prohibit such action. Responding to the concerns, Hatch and Mikulski amended their bill to prohibit partisan activities or voter registration drives by such volunteer organizations. An amendment to specifically prohibit ACORN from taking part failed, 53-43.

 

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

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