WASHINGTON — Despite President Bush's promise in his 2002 State of the Union address to expand AmeriCorps by 50 percent, the national service venture is only weeks away from shrinking dramatically. Unless the president proves willing to face down GOP ideologues in Congress this fall, a decade of hard-won progress in building national service will be lost.
Before leaving town for the summer, House Republicans stripped $100 million in emergency funds for AmeriCorps from a supplemental bill passed by the Republican-controlled Senate. Though chump change by Washington standards - $100 million amounts to less than one-hundredth of a percent of the president's tax cuts - this modest infusion would be enough to make AmeriCorps whole. Yet the White House declined to support the bill, with a spokesman declaring that the AmeriCorps situation is "not considered a disaster or an emergency."
Try telling that to the tens of thousands of young Americans who will be denied the opportunity to serve this year - and to the communities that will be deprived of their service.
The White House is quick to point out their proposed increase in AmeriCorps funding for 2004. But if the shortfall isn't made up this year, the coming cutbacks will so thoroughly weaken America's civic infrastructure that it will take years just to get back to the 59,000-member level of 2001 - much less the 75,000-member level envisioned in the president's budget request.
Teach for America, for example, is a highly successful initiative that recruits top-notch college graduates to teach in inner-city schools. Its corps of volunteers will shrink from 2,400 last year to just 575, forcing as many as 17 of its 20 programs to close. Or take City Year, the Boston-based national program that served as a model for AmeriCorps in the first place. Its membership will drop from 1,010 to 347 and it will have to shut down operations in at least five of 13 cities. And since studies have shown that the average AmeriCorps member leverages the work of at least six additional community volunteers, the ripple effects of such drastic cuts will be even larger than these numbers suggest.
Emergency funding for AmeriCorps has won support from an unprecedented coalition of 44 governors, 148 mayors, 190 college and university presidents, 250 business leaders, and 1,180 civic organizations, as well as 71 Senators.
But, so far, not from President Bush.
The president, in fact, bears a special responsibility to help assure the passage of these emergency funds. Not only did he promise in 2002 to expand AmeriCorps, but his budget requests, combined with mismanagement by his political appointees, helped create the present crisis. This mismanagement has also provided a handy pretext for many Republicans to oppose the emergency funding for a program they have never supported in the first place. As House Majority Leader Tom DeLay asked recently, "They violated a statute. Should we give them $100 million for that?"
It's worth recalling that when former Sen. Harris Wofford (D) of Pennsylvania stepped down as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) in 2001, the AmeriCorps education trust fund was running a surplus, its membership was strong, and its service programs had just received a string of stellar independent performance reviews.
The factors contributing to AmeriCorps' dramatic reversal of fortune are complex. But the fact remains that in only 2-1/2 years under the Bush administration surpluses in the AmeriCorps trust fund have been turned into deficits, strong performance reviews into accusations of mismanagement, and a program with a growing membership into one facing a 50 percent decline in the coming year.
A recently released report by the CNCS's inspector general singles out two decisions in particular that contributed to the crisis. First, under pressure to reduce costs in their first budget, the Bush administration did not ask Congress for any money to replenish the AmeriCorps trust fund, which pays education awards to volunteers.
Second, after the president publicly pledged to increase the number of AmeriCorps members by 50 percent, Bush's political appointees compounded the problem by accelerating the pace of recruitment to meet his goal a year ahead of schedule.
In November 2002, the CNCS ran out of money and was forced to declare a recruiting freeze. With the White House silent on how to fix the problem, congressional Republicans papered over the emerging deficit by shifting funds from AmeriCorps's grants program to its trust fund. The result was a 30 percent cut in AmeriCorps' operating budget.
It would be ironic if President Bush's promise to expand AmeriCorps was undone by the missteps and mismanagement of his own administration. But if he fails to speak out for emergency funds when Congress returns this fall, he will have no one to blame but himself.
• Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute and Marc Magee is director of PPI's Center for Civic Enterprise.