The bold new Peace Corps was born today in room 2172 in the Rayburn House Office Building. It took place as members of the House of Representatives were marking up the Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill authored by Committee Chairman Rep. Howard Berman. For almost every item, the California Democrat kept to the figures in President Obama's budget, but when it came to the budget for the Peace Corps he tossed out the administration's fiscal year 2010 figure of $373 million and made it $450 million. In terms of the overall budget this was chump change, but if the bill passes Congress, the Peace Corps will be able to begin the extensive reform that it needs and to move toward a doubling of the 7,000 volunteers.
Rep. Berman is a loyal Democrat and a team player of the first order. It took courage for him to support this enlarged figure, seemingly opposing the administration's number. In fact, Berman stood up for President Obama's highest ideals and values. Berman supported the movement that elected Obama. Berman saved Obama's own vision.
Obama is the one who in his campaign promised to double the size of the Peace Corps by its fiftieth anniversary in 2011. Obama is the one with a profound understanding of service as an essential feature of the American spirit. Obama is the one who has gone ahead to include in his budget tripling the size of the domestic volunteers to a massive 275,000.
What is increasingly apparent is that at its top levels, the Obama administration does not realize that it has reneged on the President's fervent campaign pledge. I know how unlikely that sounds, but it is the truth, and Berman has done the President an immense service.
If the Peace Corps is able to reinvent itself for the 21st century, Berman will deserve a place not simply in the history of the organization but in a new American presence in the world. He does not stand alone. The politician was accepting figures in a bill written by Rep. Sam Farr, cosigned by 120 of his colleagues.
Obama has a plate piled to overfilling with an endless heaping of intransigent problems, and it is understandable why he has not paid attention to the Peace Corps. But the time has come in the next few weeks when he can ensure this bold new Peace Corps will be a reality.
Obama has a blueprint of what must be done sitting on his desk: the twenty-page transition document written by his own team. The impressive piece of work manages to be both positive about the Peace Corps and its role in the world, and yet honing in on the problems of the organization and suggesting how they can be fixed so that the volunteer base can be broadly expanded.
This bold new Peace Corps needs a bold new leader with the initiative, energy and decisiveness to turn the organization from a child of the Sixties until a vibrant creature of the 21st century. That's the immediate task the Obama administration has before it, choosing a new director and an equally impressive deputy director. With the added budget, they and their associates will have one of the greatest opportunities in government.
Rep. Berman has written a new beginning for the creation of a bold new Peace Corps. It's up to the rest of us now who care about the Peace Corps to work to see that it becomes a reality. The first thing we should all do is to call the White House at 202 456-1111 between 9 and 5 and tell the operator that we support a bold, new Peace Corps for the new century.