THE BLOG
02/04/2009 04:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Strange Case of the Underfed National Service Strategy

During the campaign, Barack Obama proposed tripling AmeriCorps, the full-time community service program, at a cost of roughly $3 billion. John McCain, though less specific, also supported a large expansion in national service.

That consensus had grown around national service before the economic crisis -- which has only strengthened the argument for it. Franklin Roosevelt discovered during the Great Depression that the Civilian Conservation Corps got people fixing the country, earning wages and restoring dignity -- faster and at a fraction of the cost of traditional infrastructure projects. As I've written earlier, national service should again be viewed as an essential part of an economic recovery plan, as it gets young people useful work, rapidly and inexpensively.

So, when the Obama and the Democrats put forth their $900 billion recovery plan,how much did he put toward national service? Did he raise it to say $6 billion to create 300,000 service jobs? No, he instead proposed just $200 million, enough for about 12,000 service opportunities. How is it possible that a time when the Democrats are spending more rapidly on domestic programs than any time in history that both the House and Senate bills offered such a small increase for national service?

What I'm hearing from people familiar with the legislative dynamic is that some of the key House titans, such as Rep. David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, weren't wild about national service. Obey is typical of many traditional liberals who have resisted national service over the years on matters of principle. Some opposed it because they want only union jobs at union wages. Some feel that the fairest way to help the poor is to write them a check, not have an AmeriCorps member organize Habitat projects.

Bill Clinton faced similar resistance from the left when he proposed national service in 1993. So he made it clear it was a high priority -- and liberals (some reluctantly) went along.

In this case, the Obama administration, faced with this lack of enthusiasm, didn't push it. Perhaps they didn't want to embrace something without a strong congressional constituency or they sensed a looming Republican attack. Or maybe the White House staff substantively prefers a different approach -- aid for "social entrepreneurship" or using better web technology to improve volunteerism, a sort of Points of Light 2.0.

Whatever the reason, just as Obama allowed for dubious spending ideas to creep into the bill by outsourcing key decisions to Congressional Democrats, he also allowed important ideas -- campaign promises -- to get squeezed out by that same deference.

I was right in the middle of writing a tirade on this point when I read that the Senate Republicans have attacked even this piddling amount as "paid volunteers working at the Corporation for National Service," according to CNN.com. Grrrr.

First, that makes it sound like these are volunteers working for a government agency. The money was to go to states that would then give it to local non-profit groups (Red Cross, Teach for America, Big Brothers etc) and to the corps member.

The implication of the phrase is that we're paying them to do things that volunteers would do for free. In fact, most of the national service members work full time, often helping non-profits recruit and manage occasional unpaid volunteers. That's why so many Republican governors have supported AmeriCorps.

The smart thing for the Republicans would have been to shift money from non-job-creating social spending to cost-effective national service opportunities -- daring Obama to object to something he himself had proposed during the campaign. Come to think of it, Senator McCain, since you support national service and think some of the stimulus is wasteful, how about you stick it to the man by proposing a shift of some money toward national service?

Since the election, Michelle Obama has identified expanding national service as a personal priority. I expect that the White House will eventually turn back to its more ambitious national service plans, perhaps by backing the "Serve America Act" recently introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy. My fear is that by the time Congress gets to it, the money will be gone.

More from Steven Waldman here