WASHINGTON — In 2009, national service advocates celebrated as President Obama and a large bipartisan coalition in Congress pledged to expand prized AmeriCorps slots from the current 80,000 to 250,000, fulfilling a promise to expand national service supported by Presidents Clinton and Bush.
Five years later, national service advocates say, that promise has fallen victim to the political polarization that’s sucked most of the bipartisan spirit out of the nation’s capital. On the fifth anniversary of signing of the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act Monday, a coalition of groups will call on Obama and Congress to expand AmeriCorps and fulfill the goals of the landmark legislation.
ServiceNation, a private sector nonprofit focused on growing the public profile of AmeriCorps and other taxpayer-funded national service programs and Voices for National Service, the national coalition that helped craft the Serve America Act in the first place, will release a detailed Washington “report card” that gives federal leaders a failing grade when it comes to expanding AmeriCorps.
The groups are quick to note their F grade is for all federal leaders, rather than aimed at either House Republicans — who have passed several budgets calling for the elimination of AmeriCorps entirely — or President Obama, whose latest budget proposal funds 84,000 “traditional” AmeriCorps positions while striving for 114,000 by transferring 30,000 existing senior citizen service programs into AmeriCorps.
To advocates, both budgets show Washington is not interested in fulfilling the full promise of the Serve America Act.
“Paul Ryan didn’t make a promise to us. President Obama did,” said Zach Maurin, executive director of ServiceNation. “We’re glad this is something he’s still holding ground on, but we’re disappointed he’s not doing more to see some of the growth fulfilled.”
Programs for senior citizens interested in national service promised by the Serve America Act in 2009 have not been initiated, advocates say, and Obama’s budget package includes policies that “directly oppose the goal of the Serve America Act to expand service opportunities for retired professional and older Americans,” according to the advocates’ report.
AmeriCorps today costs taxpayers around $500 million annually. Maurin says advocates are looking for about double that, expanding the program to the size prescribed by law. $500 million is no small ask in spending-averse Washington today, and Maurin said he’s realistic about what the president or any other AmeriCorps supporter can do to expand the program. But he said the president can do more.
“We’ve had conversations and heard things that it’s a tough political climate and [the president] thinks this is something that is central to everyone’s beliefs in the White House,” he said. “We know it’s important to the president. The first lady ran an AmeriCorps program. We know they get it. And frankly that’s what’s so perplexing to us [about the president’s budget].”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the report card or on its national service budget.
AmeriCorps turned 20 last year, but despite near-universal approval at the concept of creating non-military national service opportunities for American young people, the program has largely languished in the background of the American political scene. Clinton started it then George W. Bush expanded it. In 2009 the Serve America Act was heralded as a model of bipartisan legislation. Seventy-nine Senators voted for the bill, and a number of powerful Republicans in the House supported it too. The president signed it and the future seemed bright for national service advocates.
But that was then.
In the age of polarization and tea party austerity, national service has taken a backseat to the search for budget cuts.
“One of the biggest factors is the larger political climate. National service does not have the dozens of lobbyists and major budgets to advocate for itself,” Maurin said. “Things become so partisan and it’s very hard for issues like this to keep themselves in the conversation.”
It’s not all bad news for the advocates. The report card hails Obama administration efforts to establish metrics advocates say prove the value of national service programs as well as Obama’s 2013 National Service task force aimed at finding ways federal agencies can best utilize national service volunteers.
And it’s not all bleak on the bipartisan front either. Despite the House Republican budget’s cold shoulder for AmeriCorps, advocates still count some Republicans in the Senate among their strongest allies. The report singles out Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker as “outspoken advocates for the efforts of national service members helping local communities to recover after natural disasters.” The groups say the Republicans came to support national service programs after witnessing what AmeriCorps and other volunteers accomplished in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Maurin wishes House budget architect Paul Ryan could get some hands-on experience with AmeriCorps projects too.
“We would like him to understand it more and go visit these programs before he makes such a dramatic decision [to shut it down,]” he said. “It’s not a big government program, it’s local programs doing critical work in communities including in throughout Wisconsin.”
Though the last five years haven’t seen the promise of the 2009 law fulfilled, advocates hope to see significant efforts to build AmeriCorps up in the works. Maurin expects to reap the results of a service-focused president trying to build a legacy in his last few years in office. Still, the toll of the end of strong bipartisan support for funding national service programs is evident in Maurin’s reduced measure of success.
“If the White House wants to leave eight years, two terms, with a strong legacy on this, which I think they do, there will be some forces coming together that could get national service growing again,” he said. “At the end of the Obama administration, I think it would be a victory if AmeriCorps at 150,000 members.”