When President Clinton took time in his State of the Union address to praise national service as his proudest accomplishment, he offered a tempting target to his political enemies. Republicans denounced the programs as "paid voluntarism" and a waste of taxpayers' money.
But now, after months of wrangling, it looks as though Republicans will yield and restore funding for national-service programs in the new federal budget.
Once the tiff is resolved, Washington insiders will yawn and chuckle about the hijinks of another stand-off between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress. Meanwhile, in small-town America, many other people will shake their heads at the unending cynicism of politics.
In its present form, national service can include everything from projects that depend on unpaid, occasional work by ordinary citizens to the AmeriCorps program that enlists service workers for a year of labor in exchange for a stipend and an education voucher. The concept has long drawn bipartisan support. In fact, the program President Clinton brags about is an extension of legislation passed in 1990 and embraced by President George Bush.
The program is still young, but it has already touched many lives. In places like Oakland in Western Maryland, there is a steady stream of people stopping by the storefront occupied by the local AmeriCorps program, asking about projects or making suggestions.
They don't see national service or its AmeriCorps component in partisan terms. They see what the program helps them do in communities, from making sure elderly people in rural areas get a decent meal to helping residents stretch meager incomes by planting gardens or bringing people together to build a playground.
And no one needs to convince AmeriCorps members themselves that the program is sound. In helping others, these workers get a payback far bigger than their stipends and vouchers. As her year of service drew to an end, one member told state officials that before AmeriCorps she faced a choice of desperation or welfare. Now, after helping organize and administer a gardening project, she is considering using her voucher to prepare for a career in landscape design.
The puzzling thing about the harsh criticism Republicans have showered on national service, and especially on the AmeriCorps program, is that this concept fits beautifully with the new mood in this country. Self-help, non- bureaucratic solutions to problems, communities finding low-cost ways to address their own needs -- these approaches sound as if they could come from a Newt Gingrich campaign speech. They also describe the essence of the national-service program.
Many of the projects that receive grants to support workers make use of a "cascading" model of voluntarism, in which full-time AmeriCorps workers recruit, organize and train unpaid volunteers for various projects, who in turn recruit and train other volunteers, thus multiplying the rewards many times over.
Maryland has an especially big stake in these programs. Under the umbrella of the Maryland Governor's Commission on Service, the state has taken an innovative approach to service, leveraging federal dollars to encourage groups all over the state to organize effective and efficient ways to meet community needs.
Maryland's model has even come up with a low-cost network of skilled people who can help groups train their volunteers, saving many thousands of federal dollars set aside for training purposes.
At a time when government dollars are scarce, this country needs to encourage citizen participation. And at a time when human needs are so acute, plenty of people are looking for ways they can contribute to solutions.
National-service programs offer a way to help them do that with a minimum of red tape or cost to taxpayers. Once Congress acknowledges that, people in communities across the country will breathe a sigh of relief.
G; Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.