President Clinton's call to expand the Peace Corps has rejuvenated an organization that, just a few years ago, many people had forgotten existed.
Since it was established in 1961 as a linchpin of President John F. Kennedy's idealism, successive administrations have either openly supported it or quietly let it languish. But Mr. Clinton's proposal to expand the Peace Corps from 6,610 to 10,000 by the year 2000 is once again focusing attention on a program that brings American goodwill to the farthest reaches of the world.
The proposal would require Congress to increase the Peace Corps budget to $270 million from its current $220 million, a jump of 21 percent. Ordinarily such a proposed expenditure would have many in Congress preparing to shoot it down. But the president's proposal has drawn very little fire from Capitol Hill.
"The Peace Corps has been fortunate to enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress," says Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan. "There are three Democrats and three Republicans in Congress who served in the Peace Corps, and Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia is a former Peace Corps director."
One of the congressmen who served in the Peace Corps is Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, who served in Fiji from 1968 to 1970.
"The Peace Corps is not a Democrat issue or a Republican issue," he says. "People from South Africa to Uzbekistan want better lives for themselves and their children; they want access to safe drinking water and the know-how to start a small business, and the Peace Corps allows Americans to help."
Rep. Tom Petri (R) of Wisconsin, who served in Somalia from 1966 to 1967, says the value of the Peace Corps cuts both ways. "While helping other nations, the Peace Corps experience also helps the United States by giving volunteers a greater knowledge of the world," he says.
The highest-level government official to serve in the Peace Corps is the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Donna Shalala. She says her "tour of duty" in Iran from 1962 through 1964 not only helped prepare her for her job as HHS secretary, but also helped prepare her for life. She likens the Peace Corps to "the 51st star on the American flag."
"The Peace Corps is a voice for democracy and American values," she says. "Like the stitching of a quilt, it helps bring together the world's diverse cultures. And it sows the seeds of peace by planting the enthusiasm, ideals, and skills of America's young people in the soil of other nations."
But perhaps the most important voice in support of the president's expansion plans, is Senator Coverdell. Director of the Peace Corps under President George Bush, Coverdell is now a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The chairman of the committee is Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, whose vote will be crucial if expansion is to go forward.
Senator Helms has a long history of torpedoing what he considers pet liberal projects. But a source close to both senators says that Helms is close to Coverdell and usually follows his lead on issues concerning the Peace Corps.
The proposed expansion would return the Peace Corps to a prominence it has not had since the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It reached its height with 15,000 volunteers in 1966. It survived its greatest challenge when President Richard Nixon was elected in 1968. Mr. Nixon viewed the agency as a vestige of Kennedy's liberal idealism, and considered doing away it altogether.
But even then the Peace Corps had broad support, and Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan talked the president out of closing the agency.
Since the Nixon years, the Peace Corps has hovered near 7,000 volunteers. But Director Gearan says Clinton's call for expansion could not be more timely. Interest in volunteering is up, he says, citing the 150,000 Americans who contacted the agency in 1997 asking for information on serving as volunteers - an increase of 40 percent since 1994.