(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Senate is poised to approve a dramatic expansion of the AmeriCorps national community service program. Conservatives who oppose the measure say it is an attempt to greatly expand government’s role in providing community services by replacing charitable volunteers with paid government workers.
Senators voted 74-14 Monday to take up the Serve America Act, legislation that would more than triple the size of the AmeriCorps program over the next eight years, expanding its current 75,000 positions to 250,000.
Last week, a similar bill that would add 175,000 participants to the program passed in the House by a vote of 321-105.
President Barack Obama said at the time that expanding AmeriCorps is "timely."
“At this moment of economic crisis, when so many people are in need of help and so much needs to be done, this could not be more urgent,” Obama said. “It is up to every one of us to do his or her small part to make the world a better place.”
But conservatives such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C) call the expansion nothing more than “the federal government reaching further into the world of civil society” -- an arena they say is best left to the local level and to organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, United Way and Knights of Columbus.
“Government charity is anathema to what our Founders intended and what our Constitution stands for,” DeMint said on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.
“Civil society works because it’s everything that government is not – it’s small, it’s personal, it’s responsive, it’s accountable,” he said. “Civil society must be protected from anything that makes it more like government."
AmeriCorps, which combined the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program and the National Civil Community Corps into one program, was launched in 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act into law.
More than 500,000 have participated in the program since its inception, completing public service projects ranging from building houses to teaching inner-city youth.
But DeMint said the proposed expansion of AmeriCorps would make its parent, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the 14th-largest company in the world, in terms of number of employees.
The South Carolina senator also said the federal government’s recent behavior casts doubt on whether it would be able to effectively manage such a large institution.
“Despite the good intentions of this bill, we are creating a huge new government entity that will be unmanageable and violates some of the core principles of our civil society,” DeMint said. “This bill is everything wrong with how Congress sees the world.”
The expansion would be costly. The Senate bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is projected to cost $5.7 billion over the next five years. The House version would cost an estimated $6 billion during the same period.
Last month’s stimulus plan (the Reinvestment and Recovery Act) devoted $201 million in funding for the Corporation for National Community Service to support expansion of AmeriCorps programs.
AmeriCorps participants currently receive up to $4,725 at the completion of year-long service to help cover the costs of college or pay back student loans, according to the AmeriCorps Web site.
Both the Senate and House bills would increase the maximum award to $5,350 – the same amount as a Pell Grant scholarship for college students.
Most AmeriCorps participants, the majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 26, also receive an average living stipend of $11,800 during their service period.
AmeriCorps has had its share of financial struggles. Earlier this decade, the program was accused of not knowing how many volunteers it had enlisted in its program and, consequently, how much funding was available to help pay members the stipend they had been promised.
In June of 2003, AmeriCorps said it would only be able to fund half of its volunteers.
During a Committee on Appropriations hearing in the spring of 2003, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) chastised the group’s leaders and referred to AmeriCorps as the “Enron of non-profits.”
Mikulski, however, said this week that AmeriCorps has improved, and she supports the current plan to expand the program.
Matthew Spalding, director of the Center of American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said that while many of the group’s past problems have since been corrected, the idea of tripling the size of any bureaucratic organization is a recipe for further financial troubles.
“We need to separate voluntary service – which we strongly support – and service that is sponsored and instituted by the government,” Spalding told CNSNews.com. “That’s something very different and something that, in our opinion, we need to oppose.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), meanwhile, has threatened to call the Senate in for a weekend session if a final vote on the measure doesn’t take place by Friday.
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