AmeriCorps Reckoning

It seemed so promising. When AmeriCorps, President Clinton's $427 million national service program, was launched last year, it had wide, bipartisan support. Now the House and a Senate Appropriations committee have refused to approve spending for 1996.

One problem was Clinton's request for nearly double the 1995 program cost. Even AmeriCorps' strongest backers in the Senate admitted that was too much. If Clinton was asking high to get at least last year's figure, his scheme backfired.

AmeriCorps faced an uphill battle from the start. For it to grow to the stature of the Peace Corps, several things had to happen. First, Clinton had to separate himself from the program. Instead, he made it exclusively his, touting it as one of his finest accomplishments and thus setting it up for GOP attack.

Second, the program had to perform. Like any new program, it had kinks to be ironed out, including some disorganization and wasteful spending. After only one year, it is still too early to deem AmeriCorps an unqualified success or failure.

Finally, AmeriCorps needed more money - more, even, than the requested $820 million. The problem is finding the money. Congress has made it clear where it won't come from. But if Clinton were to accept the idea of more funding from private sources, Congress might negotiate.

Republican businessman Mitt Romney, who challenged Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts for his Senate seat last year, recommends mandating the private sector to underwrite an increasing share of national service programs. Mr. Romney would scale back federal aid from 85 percent the first year to 50 percent after five years.

He's on target. Romney's plan would help Congress trim the budget while enabling the program to expand. An example of such self-sufficiency is City Year, which employs inner-city youths for urban improvement and was the original model for AmeriCorps. City Year receives roughly half its funding from private sources. AmeriCorps raises only 15 percent in private funding.

Before eliminating AmeriCorps, Congress should give the programs a chance to raise more money. Mr. Clinton should loosen his stranglehold and allow the private sector to become a bigger player.

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