There may not be much agreement in Congress about President Obama's plans for the budget, Detroit's struggling car companies, or, well, much of the rest of the economy. But last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers found common ground on at least one issue close to Obama's heart: the importance of community service.
In one of the most sweeping overhauls of the country's national service programs since the 1960s, the House passed a bill that will dramatically increase the size and scope of AmeriCorps, the government's largest volunteer organization and the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. The $5.7 billion legislation, called the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act after one of its primary sponsors, will triple the size of the service program, originally proposed by President John F. Kennedy. It will increase the number of federally subsidized opportunities for volunteering each year from 75,000 to 250,000, while also expanding the program's mission by creating several new "service corps" devoted to clean energy and health care.
For Obama, whose early work as a community organizer inspired him to make national service "a cause of my presidency," as he put it during the campaign, the bill's passage offers a rare moment to celebrate after a difficult first few months in office. "This is legislation that will usher in a new era of service in America," Obama, who may sign the bill as early as this week, said after the House approved the legislation. "I call on all Americans to stand up and do what they can to serve their communities, shape our history, and enrich both their own lives and the lives of others across this country."
The bill's passage was accompanied by some grumbling from conservatives, including Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina who denounced it as an example of "the federal government reaching further into the world of civil society." But for the most part, the effort to boost volunteerism brought a temporary truce to Capitol Hill. After the Senate approved the bill 78 to 20 last month, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who cosponsored the legislation, crossed the aisle to embrace Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat for whom the bill was named. "Volunteer service is a keystone of our country's traditions, and it is becoming increasingly important in these troubled economic times that we help our neighbors," Hatch said.
In spite of the soaring rhetoric, lawmakers aren't asking Americans to serve for nothing. Would-be volunteers interested in programs ranging from tutoring disadvantaged kids to building affordable housing will also be offered an array of new educational incentives. Those include an increase in the college stipend to $5,350 for a year of service and a $1,000 education award for older participants who volunteer for at least 350 hours, which can be passed on to their children or grandchildren.
Many of the bill's supporters, of course, are still trying to appeal to a higher calling. "History has shown that in times of crisis, Americans turn to service and volunteering for healing, for rebuilding, and for hope," said George Miller, a Democratic congressman from California. "This legislation is just what we need, at this pivotal moment, to get our nation back on track."
With the country facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, that may be easier said than done.