Bipartisanship, finally ... on a community-service bill

The legislation will increase spending on federal community-service programs by 25 percent.

Charles Dharapak/AP
First pen: President Obama hands his pen to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts after signing Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in Washington Tuesday.

President Obama on Tuesday signed a bill authorizing a major expansion of funding to federal community-service programs, marking a rare example of Washington bipartisanship.

The legislation reauthorizes the Corporation for National and Community Service – the government agency that runs AmeriCorps and other service programs – for the first time since 1996. It calls for a 25 percent increase in funding, giving the CNCS $1.1 billion for next year and almost $6 billion through 2014, if the money is appropriated by Congress.

The legislation is named for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, and it passed with strong support from both sides of the aisle – moving from proposal to passage in little more than a month.

“Programs like these are a force multiplier,” Mr. Obama said at the signing. “They leverage small numbers of members into thousands of volunteers.”

Currently, 75,000 Americans serve in AmeriCorps annually, and they train and manage some 2 million community volunteers. The legislation authorizes an expansion of the program over eight years to 250,000 people, which in turn will allow millions more Americans to volunteer.

“This … shot in the arm for civic America will allow a dramatic expansion not just in terms of those who are funded in this bill, but those who will have a chance for meaningful volunteer experiences as a result of that,” said Stephen Goldsmith, vice chair of the CNCS, in a conference call with reporters.

Since the program began 16 years ago, more than 570,000 people have given more than 718 million hours of service and earned $1.6 billion in education awards to pay for college, noted Mr. Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis.

According to the White House, the expanded AmeriCorps will place emphasis on several areas of particular need, including healthcare, clean energy, veterans, economic opportunity, and education.AmeriCorps already got a boost in the president’s stimulus plan, with $200 million going toward the hiring of 13,000 new AmeriCorps members, who will work in distressed communities. The first 200 of those are likely to be sworn in in the next week or so, according to Goldsmith.

The chairman of the CNCS, Alan Solomont, noted in the conference call that interest in service has risen dramatically. AmeriCorps applications over the past five months are up 234 percent compared with the same period a year ago.

The struggling economy and down job market are no doubt factors in the big increase in interest in AmeriCorps.

But “this is a moment when service and civic participation have become a call to action and a necessity for a healthy democracy and a healthy nation," Mr. Solomont said. "We think that today’s signing is representative of that moment and bodes for very good things, positive things for this nation."

Melody Barnes, director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, noted to reporters that the legislation made its way through Congress in speedy fashion. The president called for the legislation in his address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, and Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced legislation on March 8. By the last day in March, both houses of Congress had passed the final version of the bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was a key Republican in the bipartisan effort.

Obama was introduced by Senator Kennedy at the bill signing, which was held at the SEED School of Washington, a public school that serves children facing challenges in school and at home.

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