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House Passes Volunteerism Bill Critics Call Pricey, Forced Service

March 17: First lady Michelle Obama greets members of AmeriCorps Youthbuild USA during her visit to a "green" home building project on the National Mall in Washington. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives passed a measure Wednesday that supporters are calling the most sweeping reform of nationally-backed volunteer programs since AmeriCorps. But some opponents are strongly criticizing the legislation, calling it expensive indoctrination and forced advocacy.

The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, known as the GIVE Act -- sponsored by Reps. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y, and George Miller, D-Calif. -- was approved by a 321-105 vote and now goes to the Senate.

The legislation, slated to cost $6 billion over five years, would create 175,000 "new service opportunities" under AmeriCorps, bringing the number of participants in the national volunteer program to 250,000. It would also create additional "corps" to expand the reach of volunteerism into new sectors, including a Clean Energy Corps, Education Corps, Healthy Futures Corps and Veterans Service Corps, and it expands the National Civilian Community Corps to focus on additional areas like disaster relief and energy conservation.

It is the first time the AmeriCorps program, which was created by President Clinton in 1993, will be reauthorized, and supporters say it will have additional funding to match the renewed interest in national service since President Obama's election and the acute need for volunteerism and charity in tough economic times. 

"National and community service can help make Americans a part of the solution to get our country through this economic crisis. I hope the House and Senate will join us in moving as quickly as possible to help President Obama sign this critical bill into law," Miller, chairman of the education committee, said after the bill was passed.

But the bill's opponents -- and there are only a few in Congress -- say it could cram ideology down the throats of young "volunteers," many of whom could be forced into service since the bill creates a "Congressional Commission on Civic Service." 

The bipartisan commission will be tasked with exploring a number of topics, including "whether a workable, fair and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed and how such a requirement could be implemented in a manner that would strengthen the social fabric of the nation."

"We contribute our time and money under no government coercion on a scale the rest of the world doesn't emulate and probably can't imagine," said Luke Sheahan, contributing editor for the Family Security Foundation. "The idea that government should order its people to perform acts of charity is contrary to the idea of charity and it removes the responsibility for charity from the people to the government, destroying private initiative."

House committee staff insist the GIVE Act will not change the voluntary nature of service. 

"Its ridiculous to suggest that our bill includes any effort to make service a mandatory requirement. All of the opportunities our bill provides to Americans are voluntary. Americans are proud of their service and volunteering and their interest in it is only growing, especially in the face of this crisis. Our legislation recognizes that more Americans than ever want to serve and give back and provides them with more opportunities to be able to do so," Miller spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an e-mail to FOXNews.com.

Others say they are concerned that the increased funding will be used to promote one ideology over another. 

"It's allowing taxpayer funding of the left-wing organizations," said Larry Hart, director of government relations for the American Conservative Union.

"I think this is a problem that is rife throughout the federal government. When you dramatically expand the program, then you dramatically expand the ability for these left-wing advocacy organizations to get more funding. I don't see a lot of attention being paid to that, even from those who are critical. That's where the focus should be. Republicans tend to say its not that they oppose the program, they just want to spend less money. It's the program that's bad."

South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson was one of three Republicans to oppose the legislation in committee. Wilson questioned the utility of the cash-strapped federal government making such huge investments in what he says should be community-inspired projects and programs.

"Volunteerism is part of the American spirit of generosity, and we all stand in support of those who will share their time," said Wilson, who was voted against the bill with Minnesota Rep. John Kline and California Rep. Tom McClintock. 

"However, while our economy and our government is in financial trouble, it is not the best use of taxpayer dollars to spend the level of money on new and existing programs included in this bill."

Aides to Miller say they are awaiting estimates from the Congressional Budget Office on how much the GIVE Act would ultimately cost. In addition to all of the funding that goes to organizations in the forms of grants and administrative costs, AmeriCorps volunteers typically receive stipends and college scholarships when they complete one of the several available programs.

For example, a participant in the National Civilian Community Corps, which is a 10-month residential commitment, now receives $4,000 in living expenses and a $4,475 in money toward school. That conceivably would increase under the new legislation. 

But regardless of the budget estimate, the financial benefits outweigh the cost, Racusen said.

"The millions of Americans who volunteered in 2007 generated benefits worth $158 billion," Racusen said. "A cost-benefit analysis of AmeriCorps, for example, shows that every dollar invested in the programs yields almost $4 in direct, measurable benefits. Investing in service helps low-income students achieve in school, prepares future workers for green jobs, provides assistance to veterans returning from war, and rebuilds homes and communities after disasters."

Many of the provisions in the GIVE Act can be found in Obama's 2010 fiscal year budget blueprint issued in February. The administration proposes $1.3 billion for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which administers AmeriCorps. CNCS received an estimated $260 million in fiscal 2009.

But some critics on the right suggest that the president's push for national service goes too far, and the recent congressional steps toward expanding the federal role in volunteerism and "civilian service" smacks of a larger agenda. They point to a campaign speech the president made last July in which he suggested national security could be entrusted to a civilian force.

"We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that is just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded," Obama, who worked as a community organizer in Chicago early in his career, said during a Colorado Springs rally.

At the time, Obama was discussing expanding the USA Freedom Corps -- created by President George W. Bush in 2002 -- Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, as well as beefing up the cadre of foreign service officers abroad and programs in which veterans help veterans back home. 

"This will empower more Americans to craft their own service agenda and make their own change from the bottom up," Obama said in the speech.

"Senator Obama aims to tap into the already active volunteerism of millions of Americans and recruit them to become cogs in a gigantic government machine grinding out his social re-engineering agenda," Lee Cary of the conservative American Thinker wrote at the time about Obama's remarks.

"(His words) were about turning America into one, giant, community organizer's sandbox at enormous cost to taxpayers," Cary wrote.

Supporters say critics are a minority who prefer to agitate than assist. 

"Resistance to expanded public service programs can be expected from the ideologically sclerotic, those who occupy the negative ground between government as the problem and government as our enemy," former Democratic Colorado Sen. Gary Hart wrote in a recent op-ed on the Huffington Post Web site.

The Senate is mulling over a similar piece of legislation, the "Serve America Act," sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. It was given a special endorsement by the president in his address before Congress on Feb. 24.