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Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2002 / 4 Tishrei, 5763

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Bush should push for Citizen Service Bill | As the anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, it's clear that President Bush can succeed in accomplishing only one of his two goals for bringing about cultural change in America.

His current battle with Senate Democrats over the proposed Homeland Security Department illustrates that he's failed utterly to ease partisan political tensions.

Democrats not only accuse him of trying to execute a "power grab" by suspending civil service, collective bargaining and statutory provisions in the new department, but some also charge he's exploiting the entire war on terrorism for the benefit of Republicans.

On another score, though, there's still hope. Bush is working hard to be a "citizen service president" and to establish a new ethic of voluntary community involvement by Americans.

Bush has put the full power of the presidential pulpit behind the service idea, referring in almost every speech to the good that the "armies of compassion" can do for the nation.

The rhetorical high point of Bush's effort was in his State of the Union speech this year, in which he sought to tie volunteer dedication to the spirit with which Americans responded to Sept. 11.

"After America was attacked," he said, "we looked in the mirror and saw our better selves. ... We have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility can look like. We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self. We have been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass."

He thereupon issued a call for "every American to commit to at least two years -- 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime -- to the service of your neighbors and your nation."

Bush established the USA Freedom Corps to encourage and expand service and put a top-level White House aide, John Bridgeland, in charge of the program.

In contrast to his and his party's tendency to disparage most things Clintonian, Bush did not dismantle his predecessor's national service initiative, AmeriCorps, but has called for its expansion from 50,000 to 75,000 full-time paid volunteers.

He is also seeking to expand President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps from 7,000 overseas volunteers back to its 1966 high of 15,000 and to expand the Senior Corps, an outgrowth of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, from 500,000 to 600,000 slots.

According to Bridgeland, Bush is trying to reverse a 30-year trend -- identified by Harvard professor Robert Putnam in his book, "Bowling Alone" -- of decreasing involvement in community activities. Bridgeland said in an interview that "there are some hopeful signs of a shift in attitudes" -- basically because the president and others are now actively asking people to become involved.

Volunteer Match, a group that connects volunteers with service opportunities through the USA Freedom Network Web site, reports a 70 percent increase in referrals over the past year.

Requests for Peace Corps applications have risen by 40 percent, and online applications for AmeriCorps are up by 95 percent. More than 48,000 people have signed up for local Citizen Corps aiding police and fire departments.

Despite evident effort, Bush hasn't convinced everyone to give citizen service a high priority -- including Republican leaders in the House.

In June, the House Education and the Workforce Committee overwhelmingly approved the Citizen Service Act embodying Bush's proposed expansions of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps and authorizing use of paid volunteers to organize and increase involvement by unpaid volunteers. But the bill is not scheduled for action by the full House, and no hearings have been held in the Senate. "This bill has 'next year' written all over it," said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Despite bipartisan backing for the bill, some Democrats think this is evidence, despite Bush's rhetoric, of a weak commitment by the president to the idea of national service.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, and New Democrat scholar Bill Galston of the University of Maryland both think that if Bush were serious, he'd back a measure co-sponsored by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) calling for increasing AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots over a 10-year period.

Philosophically, liberal Democrats tend not to trust social initiatives unless they are carried out by permanent government bureaucrats. Conservative Republicans want them performed by dedicated, preferably religious, volunteers.

New Democrats (and McCain Republicans) favor paid national service volunteers. Bush supports an amalgam, using paid volunteers to leverage effort from masses of unpaid volunteers.

I'm convinced that Bush is serious. He's currently promoting expanded service by students returning to school this month, and he's readying announcement of a major initiative to improve civics education. He's also got top executives of 18 major corporations working to convince other businesses to make service a major component of corporate life -- including as factors in hiring and promotion.

But to demonstrate commitment -- and get his goal accomplished -- Bush needs to tell Hastert and other GOP leaders that he wants a Citizen Service Act passed this year.

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JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

© 2001, NEA