WASHINGTON — Congress is moving quickly to expand volunteer national service programs dramatically and to create service corps to help lower-income communities with energy, education, health and veterans' needs.
The House of Representatives voted 321-105 Wednesday to approve the measure. The Senate is likely to pass a similar bill next week.
President Barack Obama, who's pushing hard for the legislation, issued a statement commending the House for passing the measure and summing up why he supports it.
"We know that government alone is not the answer to the challenges we face. It will take all of us taking our share of responsibility. And while government can provide the opportunities to give back to our communities, as I hope it will through this legislation, it is up to each and every citizen to seize those opportunities. It is up to every one of us to do his or her small part to make the world a better place," his statement said.
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The effort has been years in the making, and the House debate Wednesday over how to tap the nation's huge reservoir of willing volunteers came in the same building in which lawmakers were expressing outrage over $165 million in bonus payments to executives of the bailed-out American International Group.
"One measure speaks to the immorality of America, and one speaks to the morality of America," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The House bill would create 175,000 service positions to be added to the current 75,000. It also would expand the AmeriCorps program and establish new service corps. The total estimated cost would be $6 billion over five years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The programs cover virtually all ages. Middle and high school students could enroll in a "Summer of Service" program to volunteer locally and earn $500 toward college costs.
At colleges, the government would award 25 grants to schools for programs that help students perform national service while they take classes. For instance, a student might take a class in community development, and part of the curriculum would involve helping homeless children.
In lower-income communities, four kinds of service corps would be created:
The bill provides no specific dollar figures for those programs and no estimates of how many people could serve in each of them.
People older than 55 could seek one of three awards. The ServeAmerica Fellowships would allow seniors to develop their own plans for serving their communities. Silver Scholarships and Encore Fellowships would help them enter new careers in the public or nonprofit sectors. Awards would be up to $1,000 for 500 hours of service.
Wednesday's debate drew little fire. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, warned that the bill risks replacing private charities with government institutions.
"We see need all over the place, and we have organizations that are mature, responsible and concerned that serve people," Sessions said. "Now they may have to compete against the government."
Miller dismissed that criticism as ridiculous. "All we're doing is multiplying the number of people who provide service," he said.
Volunteer programs have been popular with presidents for years, with varying results. George H.W. Bush had "a thousand points of light." Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps. George W. Bush, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, called for all Americans to devote the equivalent of at least two years to service.
AmeriCorps has faced criticism, however.
"AmeriCorps could not retain participants, was unable to attract private-sector funding and quickly looked like another federal jobs program," the conservative Heritage Foundation said in a 2002 study. "Several independent audits of the program pointed out mismanagement and serious cost overruns, with the real cost per participant considerably higher than advertised."
Obama vowed to improve the system. Supporters think the reeling economy presents an unusually good opportunity.
"Service and volunteerism are the bedrock of our emergency preparedness and national security," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., a co-chairman of the House National Service Caucus.
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