A Chance to Make America Better

Read more: Serving America: A National Service Agenda for the Next Decade

The Senate began debate Monday on the Serve America Act—the first major legislation on national service since Congress enacted AmeriCorps 16 years ago. And it could not come at a more critical time. Nonprofits are struggling to keep up with the demand for services prompted by the economic crisis, while Americans are lining up to serve. The House passed the GIVE Act last week, which reauthorizes the national service laws, and President Barack Obama is poised to sign this groundbreaking legislation once Congress has completed action on the bills, possibly before the April recess.

The Center for American Progress called in its 2007 national service agenda for the federal government to direct service at the important challenges facing our country—education, health, energy, and economic opportunity—as well as populations who would most benefit from helping others such as middle-schoolers in transition to high school, out-of-school youth, and older adults.

The Kennedy-Hatch bill being debated today does all of these things and builds a critical infrastructure for a large-scale expansion of volunteering that will make service a vital strategy for solving America’s most pressing problems. It will also build on national service’s role in social innovation by creating a much-needed fund that will provide growth and seed capital for new solutions to social problems.

The bill is strongly bipartisan—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) will be managing the bill on the Senate floor for the minority with Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) managing the bill for Senator Kennedy (D-MA). It has the support of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Committee Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY) among others. Yet a group of conservatives has once again targeted service legislation to advance their ideological agenda.

A motion to recommit the bill in the House resulted in an amendment that would deny the nonprofit organizations that receive funding the right to advocate for legislation—even if no federal funds are used and no national service participants are involved. In fact, these organizations could not participate if they are even co-located with any organizations that engage in advocacy. As a result, virtually every existing grantee would no longer be allowed to engage in legislative advocacy on any topic or they would lose their national service funding, including proven programs such as Habitat for Humanity, Teach For America, and Campus Compact. The Senate managers have developed a workable compromise on prohibited activities that should enjoy broad support.

Amendments are expected in the Senate that would means test national service to exclude “wealthy individuals” from families with taxable incomes exceeding $1 million. It seems wildly contrary at a time when many have bemoaned the under-representation of people of means in the all-volunteer military to discourage them from civilian service. This provision would also require every person who serves in AmeriCorps to disclose their family income and likely require them to fill out extensive paperwork similar to the federal financial aid forms. It makes no sense during this time of need to discourage Americans from serving or impose administrative requirements that would cost more than they would save.

Passing the Serve America Act without these destructive amendments is a necessary next step toward achieving badly needed national service improvements and expansion. It is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix what’s wrong with America with what’s right with America—the American people’s willingness to give of themselves to make a difference for others.

For more information, see:

Serving America: A National Service Agenda for the Next Decade