Yesterday, Rep. Nita Lowey (NY-18) approved a $46.15 million funding increase for the Peace Corps in 2011. Working with a significantly reduced overall funding mark, Rep. Lowey and her Republican and Democrat peers on the subcommittee, including Representatives Kay Granger (R-TX), Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), pulled from other programs to get the Peace Corps the full amount requested by President Obama, which was an 11.5% increase over current funding levels.
To put this in perspective, Peace Corps gained an 11.5% increase amidst a 10% reduction in the President's request. While it was $19 million short of the funding mark endorsed by 124 bipartisan champions in Congress, the vote represents a remarkable confidence in the agency in austere economic times.
The official statement from the subcommittee acknowledged bipartisan support in Congress: "The committee is aware of the bipartisan interest in increasing the size and strength of the Peace Corps and, despite significant budget constraints, provides the President's budget request, $446 million, for the Peace Corps."
Rep. Lowey has been a key advocate of expanding the size of the agency. Last year, she provided a $60 million increase, the largest since 1961, adding 1,000 new trainees and three new Peace Corps programs in Sierra Leone, Indonesia, and Colombia.
The $46 million increase matches the second highest increase ever, which came back in 1963. That the highest and second-highest increases in Peace Corps history have come in the last two years as thousands of former volunteers, staff, and concerned citizens have come together engaging in advocacy is no accident. Without the pressure, there would likely have been no increase.
If approved by the Senate subcommittee, the $446.15 million budget would be enough to open new programs in Vietnam, Haiti, Tajikastan and Nepal, and increase the volunteer presence in China, Jordan, Rwanda, Ukraine, and other countries to meet demand from a growing number of interested applicants domestically. Aside from expansion, a portion of the funding will also support innovations in areas such as alternative energy and forestry.
Today, Peace Corps operates in 80 countries around the world with just $400 million. The volunteers live in homestays in communities in very modest and humble conditions, away from luxury and excess. They get about $100 per month, depending on which country, and the local communities support their stay. These factors make it a smart program.
Now, it is hoped that Rep. Lowey can protect the $46.15 million increase as it moves through the Senate and final conference report process. Without the leadership of Peace Corps' biggest proponent in public office today, Congressman Sam Farr (CA-17, Colombia 64-66), a senior member of the Appropriations committee, and his staff and interns, who rallied over 100 Congressional peers to support a $65 million increase, the Peace Corps budget would not have increased by near $50 million last night or $60 million last year.
The Peace Corps received more good news last week when Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-09) introduced HR 336, the Peace Stamp for the Peace Corps, which would issue an honorary semi-postal postage stamp to create revenue for Peace Corps activities through sales at a slightly higher rate than the standard 44 cents. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to take up the legislation soon.
Peace Corps provides a strong return on the dollar. Congress should continue to invest in it and shore up the volunteer number as Rep. Lowey has done today.