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Chris Dodd's Peace Corps: "The Ambitious Sense of the Possible"

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Early this evening Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut gave what will probably prove the most important speech in the history of the Peace Corps since that late October night in 1960 when Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy introduced the idea of a volunteers serving in the developing world. Dodd's Senate speech introduced the Peace Corps Improvement and Expansion Act of 2009 to grow and reform the 48-year-old agency. If passed, the legislation will likely make Dodd the father of a bold new Peace Corps for the 21st century, at least double in size, and immensely larger in purpose and impact.

The bill was born not in his office in the Russell Building but in the tiny village of Moncion in the Dominican Republic more than forty years ago. It was there the young Dodd, a senator's son and a man of privilege, served as a Peace Corps volunteer and was transformed. In his years in public office, the Senator has had many accomplishments, but this moment today on the floor of the Senate is surely one of the greatest. Whatever his legislative monuments, whatever his faults, he may well be remembered for this one act as much as for anything else in his career if this emboldened, renewed institution is created.

The Senator began by celebrating a list of giants who created the historic agency including Kennedy, Warren Wiggins, Sargent Shriver, and Harris Wofford. He spoke about brave leaders taking chances because timidity would have doomed them to failure. But what made his remarks so emotionally powerful is that he talked about his own experience with intimacy and passion. He pointed out that when he joined the Peace Corps in 1966 there were 16,000 volunteers, more than twice what there are now.

"I spoke barely any Spanish and had little idea what I was doing and certainly didn't have a clue that more than forty years later I would be standing up here on the floor of the Senate explaining that the Peace Corps gave him the richest two years of his life," he said his voice touched with emotion. "From the story of the Peace Corps and my own story, we learn three things. First of all, the Peace Corps works, Mr. President.. Besides simple labor and good will, every American we send overseas brings another chance to make America known to a world that often fears and suspects us and our motives. And every American who returns to our country comes home as a citizen strengthened with the knowledge of the world that he or she has just lived in.

"Second, Mr. President, the perils of a small, timid Peace Corps are just as strong today as they were in 1961. Of course, we need volunteers of the highest quality but we need the highest quantities to make a difference. Third, growth comes at a price. The Peace Corps that started with a staff of two now enjoys a staff over 100 and a fine office building not far from the White House."

Dodd's bill calls for the $450 million appropriation approved by the House subcommittee, $575 million in fiscal year 2011 and $700 million in 2012, enough to move vigorously toward a doubling of the volunteers.

Dodd then turned to reform and suggested that many Peace Corps supporters were uncomfortable with the idea but said that it must be faced straight on. Dodd is the only politician in America with the power and knowledge to say that and write this bill. It is the work of a man who loves the Peace Corps but understands its flaws and knows that you can not mindlessly grow the agency but must reform it from the bottom up. There could have been dozens of specific reforms in this bill but it fundamentally puts the agency on notice. It orders the new director to do a serious study of the agency and how it should be reformed and then carry the mandate out. Dodd ran through a litany of questions that must be answered and then acted upon.

It is clear that if this is not done quickly and well, the wrath of Dodd will be visited upon the agency. In the past few years, Dodd has not given the agency the oversight that he should have given it. But Dodd is not going to strut boastfully about because of the mere passage of the act. He promises to be there overseeing the agency and its new director helping to ensure that volunteers head out into the rich variety of the world, well prepared to help and to learn.

Dodd is one of the most powerful senators, and now with the illness of his dear friend Senator Edward Kennedy, he is overwhelmingly busy. Much of the work on the specifics of the bill was done by two young aides, Joshua Blumenfeld and Ben Weingrod, who were not volunteers but in their commitment well could have been. Dodd has worked with them for months, and it is extraordinary that in the midst of struggling over a health bill to insure all Americans, the senator found the time and the energy to introduce the bill.

President Obama has not kept his oft-repeated campaign pledge to double the number of volunteers by 2011. Although privately administration members admit they made a mistake, the 2010 fiscal budget contains only $373 million for the agency, enough to fund neither reform nor expansion. But there is such an extraordinary groundswell of support for a reborn Peace Corps that in the House of Representatives the entire Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Rep. Nita Lowey, including all the Republicans, voted $450 million for the fiscal year 2010 budget, enough to begin the long march toward a vastly enlarged, reformed agency.

Enter the Senate. The most serious potential adversary of a bold new Peace Corps is an unlikely one: the progressive Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. The Senator is a vociferous foe of the current Peace Corps and as the chairman of the Senator Appropriations Committee his voice matters enormously.. Most of Leahy's criticisms are valid, and if they are not answered to his satisfaction he is going to sit on the Peace Corps, and no matter what his colleagues on the committee want, to teach the agency a lesson it will not forget. There is bound to be broad bipartisan support for a robust, energized Peace Corps led on the Republican side probably by the formidable Senator Kit Bond, a classic son of Missouri. And Leahy may find himself the odd man out on his own committee, but if he feels strongly, that won't stop him.

No one in American politics has had such a long-term commitment to the Peace Corps as Dodd, but in recent months he had appeared uncharacteristically absent. Everyone in the Senate has been asking the same question about the key player in this drama. "Where is Senator Dodd?" The answer was, "Who knows?" Even Leahy's staff was asking the question for they knew that nothing would impress Leahy more than his friend coming forward with his much discussed bill.

Dodd was planning to wait to introduce the bill later this year when he had a break in his incredibly busy legislative schedule. He is running in a tough reelection campaign, and his staff was going to make a big deal out of this, setting up all kinds of media, making sure the speech got the attention it richly deserved. But because of the inner politics of the Senate and how important the bill is to this campaign for full funding, Dodd sacrificed the high visibility to get it out there so his colleagues in the Senate, especially Leahy, would see what he had done.

Dodd is calling for the Peace Corps to go backward and forward. It must go backward to the qualities of the bold, fearless men who created the unique institution. And it must go forward to become a lean, tough expanded organization ready to leave the foxholes of caution and match forward into the glorious unknown and unknowable.

"And most of all how can we strengthen and grow this remarkable organization without losing that ambitious spark, the ambitious sense of the possible?," Dodd asked rhetorically. "The Peace Corps stands today as one of the singular accomplishments of the twentieth century. Let us never lose that spirit, that idealism, that ambition that led a young president of a young nation to ask a generation to serve."

Today the public galleries were largely empty. The media gallery was quiet. There were few other Senators on the floor. But this was a great moment in American politics. As Dodd spoke, it was not a sixty-five-year old Senator rich in gravitas standing there. It was a twenty-three-year old young man in shorts, a t-short and flip-flops sitting around with a bunch of kids, laughing and joking in Spanish, probably as happy as he had ever been, and if he is like many volunteers, as happy as he ever would be.

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