WASHINGTON — IT has been several days now since President Clinton announced his national service program, and at the White House's Office of National Service, the letters are pouring in.
"These are the result of Friday's speech," says an eager young man, himself a volunteer, sorting the unopened mail from around the country. The letter writers, he assumes, are young Americans, ready to take up the president's call.
In fact, this office has been flooded with inquiries for weeks. But the problem with getting the program going has never been with the potential participants. It is with Congress, reluctant in this era of budget-slashing to add a new program costing perhaps $3.4 billion over the next four years for something that is not among the public's highest priorities.
Under the plan, at least 100,000 young people, ages 17 and older, would be able to work off up to $10,000 in college tuition costs ($5,000 per year) by performing community service in the area of public safety, health, environment, or education.
Even supporters of the legislation, which is being sent up to Capitol Hill today, have some concerns. A senator has doubts
"The focus is on two years of public service to get out of paying a loan. To me that takes the edge off the community service aspects," says Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, who as of Tuesday evening was the only Republican in the Senate co-sponsoring both the National Service bill and companion legislation to reform the government's student loan program.
"I'm in it for the community service side of it," Senator Durenberger continues. "It could be only one year, or there could be no $5,000 (loan forgiveness)."
People would be able to perform the service before, during, or after their college years. In addition to college loan forgiveness, they would receive a minimum-wage stipend and health and child-care benefits if needed.
Clinton's emissaries to Congress in the Office of National Service know they and the president have their work cut out for them. "Well, we don't want to be guilty of hubris, so we're assuming that we're going to have to be very diligent about our task," says Rick Allen, the office's deputy director.
He continues: "On the other hand, it's been really gratifying to us to see both the level of public support and also the bipartisan level of support that's developing in Congress. So there's still a lot of work to be done, but we're optimistic that we're going to be able to get it through and get it through on time and be appropriated as part of fiscal year '94."
Mr. Allen is confident that this summer's smaller-scale program, already in place, will demonstrate that the president's larger plan deserves support. `Summer of service'
The "summer of service" is a 9 1/2-week program with emphasis on leadership training for the roughly 1,600 young people aged 17 to 25 who are taking part. Participants receive minimum wage plus a $1,000 post-service benefit.
Clinton's full national-service plan would not establish a large federal bureaucracy to administer it - an essential selling point - but rather will rely mostly on programs run by local agencies around the country, which will apply for federal grant money and will set their own criteria for participation. Boston's City Year program - which takes in youths from all walks of life - fits well with the program, Allen says. Neediest not targeted
For the national program, the aim of including youth from all social classes leaves some congressmen concerned that it will not do enough to benefit the neediest youth - for whom a shot at college may make the difference between a productive life and life on welfare or in jail. The 100,000 participants would represent only a tiny fraction of the nation's 13 million college students.
Others are concerned that if the government is going to put billions of more dollars into post-secondary education, it would be more cost-effective simply to boost aid to education, rather than assuming the costs of the wages, administration, training, and other benefits associated with the National Service plan.
But Clinton's aim is not just to boost aid to education. It is also to instill a sense of civic responsibility in the nation's youth. Congressional sources predict some form of the bill will likely pass, but probably not in its current form.
"No one opposes the concept of national service," says an aide to the Republican minority on the House education subcommittee. "The problem is the amount of money he's proposing and the kind of expectations he's raising. The president has gone around promoting it as the answer to the problem of the high cost of college."
While young Americans are enthusiastic, the general public hasn't shown much excitement yet.
As long as people aren't calling their congressmen in droves urging support, "the president will have to make a hard sell," says another congressional aide.