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AmeriCorps Comes Under Dick Armey's Friendly Fire

I've come to realize what a vital role programs like AmeriCorps can play in supporting the charitable efforts of those working in the trenches.
 
 
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Talk about friendly fire. That was House Majority Leader Dick Armey pronouncing the president "so wrong" on his plan to greatly expand federal funding for AmeriCorps, the national service program Armey called "obnoxious." Poring over Armey's tirade, I could only shake my head knowingly and think: Been there. Done that. And Armey is as dead wrong as I was.

I, too, had once scoffed at the notion of offering financial support to volunteers; after all, isn't "paid volunteer" an oxymoron? In fact, on Oct. 17, 1995, I testified against AmeriCorps in Congress, convinced that young people should learn to volunteer out of the noble impulses of their hearts, not because they are getting a few dollars in return.

"Helping those in need is a moral imperative," I testified back then. "It is our responsibility -- our obligation -- and in a completely different realm from getting loans to go to school or money to live on. The people I most admire in this world are volunteering their time everyday without the benefit of any fancy, bureaucratically run programs."

I believed that then and I believe it now. What's different is that I've come to realize what a vital role programs like AmeriCorps can play in supporting the charitable efforts of those working in the trenches.

My conversion began seconds after I finished my testimony. Harris Wofford, the former senator from Pennsylvania who was then running AmeriCorps, came rushing up to me. I was expecting him to read me the riot act, but, instead, he asked me to lunch. I was taken aback (but intrigued), and off we went for some grilled chicken, a green salad, and a side order of crow.

I must admit I'm a sucker for passion, and Wofford -- who had been instrumental in setting up the Peace Corps and had worked closely with Robert Kennedy -- had more passion than an entire season of "Sex in the City." And now he was bringing it all to bear on AmeriCorps' mission of fostering national service by training 50,000 Americans a year to, among other things, tutor at-risk kids, build homes, help seniors, clean up trails and rivers, and assist the victims of natural disasters. "My dream," Wofford explained, "is to make service of a substantial kind a common expectation of young people."

It was a masterful seduction. I don't think I'll ever forget the moment when we first locked eyes and he said to me: "Together we can crack the atom of civic power." Prompted by him, I was soon witnessing firsthand how, far from undermining the spirit of giving, as I had feared, AmeriCorps members actually acted as magnets drawing in other volunteers. Indeed, Wofford estimates that "every AmeriCorps member generates and makes possible the work of about 12 occasional volunteers."

As it turned out, the list of erstwhile AmeriCorps foes converted by Wofford is long and impressive, and includes many lawmakers not noted for flapping in the wind of legislative fashion, like Sens. John McCain, Dan Coats, and Rick Santorum, and Rep. John Kasich. In fact, McCain and Santorum -- who once mocked AmeriCorps as a place "for hippie kids to stand around a campfire holding hands and singing 'Kum Ba Ya' at taxpayer expense" -- each ended up introducing legislation to expand the program.

I called Wofford to ask him how he had let Armey slip through his net. "When Gingrich became speaker," he told me, "abolishing AmeriCorps was at the top of his agenda. Every year since then, a bill has been introduced to abolish AmeriCorps. And Armey has always supported it."

"On the other hand," he continued, "look at Kasich. He was adamantly opposed to AmeriCorps until he started researching a book on leadership and compassion, and discovered that the program he admired most, the Harlem Peacemakers, would not have been possible without the participation of fifty AmeriCorps members."

Still deeply committed to mobilizing the country's young people, Wofford has just taken over as chairman of America's Promise, a post first held by Colin Powell. In a fitting twist, he replaces new Republican National Committee chair Marc Racicot, who, as Governor of Montana, was instrumental in getting all but one of the nation's top governors to sign a letter to Congress urging it to renew AmeriCorp's funding.

Of course, charm and enthusiasm can only get you so far. In the end it was confrontation with reality that transformed the thinking of so many influential Republicans. While in theory the private sector can rise to the occasion and provide the time and money needed to solve social problems, in the real world -- of which conservatives pride themselves on being the only true denizens -- it simply doesn't. I discovered the hard way how much easier it is to raise money or recruit volunteers for the opera or a fashionable museum than for a homeless shelter or an inner city after-school program.

It is sad but true that the task of overcoming our social problems is too monumental to be accomplished without the raw power of government appropriations and all the incentives we can muster to urge Americans -- especially young ones -- to make service part of their lives.

There are, of course, those who insist on elevating ideology above proven results. You would think that, post-Sept. 11, Dick Armey would be champing at the bit to tap into the new spirit of altruism and patriotism. Perhaps a lunch with Harris Wofford, John McCain, Rick Santorum and John Kasich would tip the balance. I'll bring the humble pie. We've all admitted we were wrong. Why won't you, Mr. Armey?