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A Tale of Two Houses: Congress Debates the Peace Corps

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Often debates in the House of Representatives are little more than ideological diatribes before a largely empty assembly. Thursday, the House was galvanized by a powerful debate set up when Rep. Cliff Stearns of northern Florida put forth an amendment to strip the Peace Corps of the $450 million in the House Appropriations Bill and bring it down to the $373 million in the original bill. That would mean no bold new Peace Corps with the money to expand and reform.

Stearns is the kind of Republican who every time he speaks digs a deeper and deeper hole for his party. In the hours before the afternoon debate, various supporters of a bold new Peace Corps in the House vied to be among the speakers.

I happened to be driving to Dulles Airport on my way to Nepal when I called Rajeev Goyal, the national coordinator of Morepeacecorps.org. "You gotta hear this," Rajeev said and put his I-phone up to his television tuned to C-Span and caught the middle of Rep. Betty McCollum's remarks. It was like listening to a warrior queen exhorting her troops into battle. I felt almost pity for poor old Stearns. He was fighting the Ninth Army with a water pistol. Rep. Nita Lowey was equally powerful as was Rep. Sam Farr, a returned volunteer himself. Then Stearns made the mistake of talking about the expense of the Peace Corps. Rep. Steve Driehaus stood up and talked about his own experience as a volunteer when he was paid the magnificent sum of $280 a month.

In the end, Stearns' foolish amendment failed miserably. The occasion showed the passionate power of our movement to build a bold new Peace Corps that after half a century will fulfill JFK's original dream.

In the Senate at the same time a less edifying drama was taking place. Rajeev and I had been told that Senator Leahy was our most resolute foe in the Senate. We tried for weeks to meet with the Senator or his staff and time and again we were turned down. In the end a few weeks ago, we paid $50 each to attend the Senator's ice cream social.

I approached Leahy as any of the 195,000 returned volunteers would have, as a concerned, polite, determined believer in the Peace Corps. "I'm sick and tired of being accosted by Peace Corps volunteers," Leahy said.

"It's a democracy, Senator," I replied. "It's Americans exercising their right to petition their government."

Leahy detailed how the Peace Corps administration during the Bush years had arrogantly ignored his repeated requests for information, and that he was fed up with that attitude. I told him it was a new administration and a new time, but that didn't seem to matter.

"If the Peace Corps doesn't shape up, Chris Dodd and I are going to shut it down!"

Leahy has many valid points but he isn't calling for shutting down the Defense Department because of money squandered on useless weapons systems. And he will have to try to do it alone for Senator Dodd has authored an important bill to expand and reform the Peace Corps.

Leahy didn't seem to listen, or if he listened he didn't hear, of if he heard he didn't care. As chairman of the crucial Senate appropriations subcommittee, Leahy holds great power. We tried to get around that by going to the other members of the committee getting overwhelming support. When I finally got a chance to talk to Tim Rieser, Leahy's crucial appropriations aide, and told him about our support, he replied, "It doesn't matter if you get the majority, we will decide."

I thought the aide had overreached himself but on the eve of the committee vote, I saw that Rieser was right. Although the various senators were still strongly supportive of a bold new Peace Corps, they decided that they did not want to challenge their chairman at this time, and there was no debate in the committee.

The only person to stand up was Senator Kit Bond, who is proving to be the most stalwart champion of a bold new Peace Corps in the Senate. The conservative Missourian is an articulate, immensely knowledgeable figure about security and foreign affairs, and he gets it better than anyone what the Peace Corps can be. To him it's one of the crucial elements of what he calls "Smart Power."

'The need for the Peace Corps has never been more important," Bond told Leahy and the rest of the subcommittee. "This is an opportunity we can't afford to miss. America needs to wise up and increase our investment in 'Smart Power' and our Peace Corps Volunteers."

Bond is every bit as aware of the shortcomings of the current Peace Corps as Leahy, but the Missouri Senator has no personal pique about the way he has been treated and he is seeking a positive way to build the agency. Leahy is seeking a negative way to diminish it, and to defend his position, he resorts to distorted arguments.

Chairman Leahy's prepared remarks stated: "Some have called for a large increase in funding above the amount requested by the president for fiscal year 2010, in order to send volunteers to new countries. Very few of such countries are safe enough or otherwise ready to host volunteers, and there are hundreds of volunteers currently serving in countries with little if any strategic importance to the United States who could be used more effectively."

That simply is not the case. There are twenty new countries ready and willing for volunteers. Rajeev and I met with the ambassador from Rwanda a few weeks ago who wants 100 more volunteers immediately. As for those volunteers serving in countries with little so-called "strategic importance," that is insulting to volunteers who are serving with honor. We must expand the Peace Corps to new countries but we must not pull out of countries simply because they are considered non-strategic. That would defame the whole idea of the Peace Corps.

Senator Leahy must be held to account for his positions. Leahy has told many people about possibly bringing down the Peace Corps. Will he make such a boast in public? He says now that his problem is that there is no new director. If such a person is appointed in the next couple months and he or she is committed to reform and growth, will the Senator commit to the full $450 million budget when the final bill is written? Or does this principled, progressive Senator intend to make it his role to attempt to thwart the birth of a bold new Peace Corps?

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