WASHINGTON – Lawmakers trying to maximize the spirit of civil service in the post-9/11 era are seeking to expand the Clinton-era AmeriCorps program, a six-year-old domestic Peace Corps that critics ridicule as a taxpayer boondoggle and supporters praise as a new font of civic pride among young people.
When Congress returns later this month, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., will be pushing their "Call to Service Act," a multi-pronged measure that seeks to expand volunteer service in America.
Bubbling around the fringes of that effort will be another, much quieter call for something young Americans haven’t faced since the Vietnam War -- mandatory national service. However, instead of picking up guns to fight the Vietcong, young people would have to pick up shovels to dig foundations or lend a hand at the local soup kitchen.
McCain and Bayh’s bill would expand the number of volunteers participating in the $435 million AmeriCorps program from 250,000 to 500,000.
Under the plan, new AmeriCorps volunteers could sign up for duties linked to homeland defense. The proposal would also expand the SeniorCorps program for elderly volunteers, and provide money for non-profit organizations that supply volunteers for efforts like disaster relief.
This approach is "ideally suited for the tenor of the times," said Mark Kornblau, a spokesman for Bayh’s office. It "is such a dramatic expansion of service opportunities."
Not everyone is on board with enlisting volunteers to help out with homeland defense, though. Some say we should exhaust our existing pool before tapping into a new one.
"I am very disturbed that this current national security crisis is being used as a hobby-horse for those who are advocating national service," said Elaine Donnelly, executive director of the Center for Military Readiness in Detroit. "We have yet to tap into retired law enforcement, FBI, military and secret service [personnel]. They should be utilized for homeland defense."
Others see no need to augment a program they say has been ineffective from the beginning. John Bovard, an analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says AmeriCorps is a waste of money that devotes more than half its budget to preparing volunteers for their Graduate Equivalency Degree or sending them on food stamp drives.
"Citizens should no longer be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes each year for a bunch of photo opportunities for politicians and do-gooders," Bovard wrote in a recent report.
Donnelly and others are also concerned that a renewed focus on homeland service would divert volunteers from active-duty military service. Although the military experienced a surge in interest following the Sept. 11 attacks, actual recruitment, at about 200,000 during 2001, remained the same as the previous year, according to the Department of Defense.
Another idea batted around at the fringe of the national service debate is guaranteed to raise even more hackles – compulsory national service.
Scholar Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution recently argued that compulsory service for young people from all backgrounds can become the new great equalizer, much the way the military had been.
But American society has already moved in this direction, with requirements in some states that high schoolers perform community service during their years in high school, Litan said in the latest issue of the Brookings Review.
"Compulsory service brings together people from all walks of life during crucial formative years and puts them in a common environment, where they have no choice but to get along with each other," he said. "It also helps instill a sense of obligation to the larger society."
Opponents are already squawking. Jeff Deist, a spokesperson for Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, called said such requirements are incompatible with a free society. "It tends to inculcate young people with the mindset that they are subjects of the state,” Deist said. “Is this a useful, or even a constitutional, way for Congress to spend taxpayer dollars?"
So far, Congress hasn’t rallied behind calls for compulsory service. McCain and Bayh will take to college campuses next month in an effort to rally support for both AmeriCorps and their legislation, but they won’t be talking about forcing anybody to do anything just yet.
"We would rather people serve their country because they want to, not because they have to," Kornblau said.