Americorps program faces building friction


WASHINGTON -- White House "talking points" were distributed within the Clinton administration the other day laying down the official line on Republican spending cuts. The "talking points" warn that "the president will have no choice but to veto appropriations bills now moving through the House that cut education to finance tax cuts for the wealthy."

The first action mentioned as fodder for a veto is "eliminating Americorps -- 50,000 opportunities for national service in 1996." This is the pet initiative of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign: mobilizing young "volunteers" in community service with a payback of tuition grants when the service is completed.

The program started with 20,000 volunteers and a budget of $365 million, which was raised to $575 million for this fiscal year but then cut to $470 million in the recent spending rescissions reluctantly accepted by Clinton. Now the Republican-controlled House is poised to kill off the program entirely, with the Senate expected to follow suit after the August recess.

The amount of money is small in a trillion-dollar budget but a number of Republican legislators, especially hatchet-wielding freshmen, are going after Americorps as if it were a big-ticket item. The fact that it is Clinton's pet project no doubt is a factor motivating some of those who want to kill it.

This motivation goes unmentioned, and instead the critics are focusing on the cost of the program. They are citing a preliminary report of the General Accounting Office, Congress' green-eyeshade arm, contending that the cost per Americorps member far exceeds administration estimates. They also argue that the "volunteers" are no such thing because they get an annual living stipend of about $9,000 plus the education grant worth about $4,000.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa says the GAO report places the cost at about $27,000 a head, compared with the national service program's projection of just under $19,000. But Eli Segal, the chief executive officer of the program, notes that the GAO includes various private contributions as part of the cost in calculating "resources available" for each participant. And he argues that the community benefit of services provided, attested to by selected mayors and local business leaders, is

not factored into the assessment of the program's worth.

This controversy over cost, however, blurs a basic ideological issue involved in the minds of many conservatives determined to wield the ax. They argue that the whole idea of a partnership between the federal government and localities and the business community is not only too expensive but an impediment to getting Washington out of people's lives.

John P. Walters, president of The New Citizenship Project, founded in 1994 "to help forge a cohesive agenda for reinvigorating citizenship in an era marked by growing skepticism toward big government," has argued that "the issues involved in the Americorps debate cast in stark relief the central difference between liberal efforts to reinvent government (Vice President Al Gore's project) and conservative efforts to relimit it."

Walters, who is a colleague of new conservative theorist Bill Kristol, writes in a recent memo that "Americorps is an unwarranted extension of the federal government into the private sector; an example of bureaucratic populism which seeks to do for Americans and their communities what they are doing more effectively for themselves. . . . The principled brief against Americorps is clear; government has no business in the private, voluntary sector."

Thus, what may seem on the surface as simply a Republican effort to embarrass the Democratic president goes beyond that narrow objective to a basic argument of the federal government's proper role in the era of conservative demands to reduce it.

Segal's observation that Americorps is precisely the kind of anti-bureaucratic, community-based volunteerism that conservatives should love falls on deaf ears among these critics.

The likely result is a showdown and a veto unless Americorps, at least in reduced form, is somehow salvaged.

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