NEARLY A DECADE AGO when President Clinton first proposed AmeriCorps, the make-work program that pays out millions of dollars to young public service "volunteers," fiscal conservatives lined up in droves to take shots at the plan. One lawmaker even called it a program "for hippie kids to stand around a campfire holding hands and singing Kumbaya."
Alas, those days are long gone.
Today, conservatives can’t sign on to AmeriCorps fast enough. Heavyweights such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have surrendered their opposition to AmeriCorps and lent it their support. In 2000 then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed a letter calling the program a "force for good in our communities, states, and country." His proposed budget includes $733 million for AmeriCorps’ parent organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).
But what is this "force for good" doing in our communities, anyway? And why is it deserving of hundreds of millions of our tax dollars?
"Local AmeriCorps programs have been hit by one scandal after another, including cases of people receiving AmeriCorps credit for people working at McDonald's, or baby-sitting, or attending Sunday School," wrote FrontPage’s James Bovard in an August 2000 exposé on the program. Other AmeriCorps workers went to the Mississippi Delta to sign up people for welfare. Bovard also reported that AmeriCorps dispatched volunteers to Gay and Lesbian Centers for the purpose of fighting "anti-gay bias."
Meanwhile a recent Inspector General’s report documents case after case of fraud, waste and abuse at AmeriCorps. The report cites cases of the theft of AmeriCorps funds and computers, AmeriCorps workers falsifying time sheets, and abuse of government travel privileges. The report even documents an improper sexual relationship by a CNCS employee with a young AmeriCorps worker.
Now a bill sits pending in Congress that would expand AmeriCorps’ ranks by five hundred percent between now and 2010. Sponsored by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and John McCain (R-AZ), the bill would unleash a torrent of new money into the program. It would allow senior citizens to become AmeriCorps workers, and make it easier for non-profit groups to get their mitts on federal grant money.
In a peculiar twist, the bill also would tie AmeriCorps to military service by doubling existing GI Bill benefits from $7,800 to $15,600 annually for three years. It would also create a short-term enlistment program called the "18-18-18" plan, under which an enlistee would serve 18 months of active service, then 18 months in the reserves, and then receive an $18,000 bonus at the end of service.
Another part of the bill would close loopholes in existing laws governing access by military recruiters to college campuses. These loopholes have created a state on our campuses where colleges, in the words of the bill’s sponsors, "may be allowing access but not providing, in the spirit of the law, full access to recruiters." To be more direct, our campuses have spent decades vilifying the military. Allowing equal time to military recruiters is long overdue. A reform such as this could stand as a bill of its own, pure as the January snow.
Unfortunately, the "Call to Service Bill" reads more like a pact with the devil. Working like Midas in reverse, it turns this one golden proposal to expand military recruiters’ access to colleges into a lump of lead. Cleaning up the anti-military campus culture shouldn’t be contingent upon expanding a wasteful federal program like AmeriCorps.
Moreover, even some parts of the bill that conservatives may find appealing deserve a second look. For instance, the "18-18-18" plan for short-term military service at first glance appears like a worthy proposal to close the enormous gap between civilian and military cultures. But really it’s just a conservative corollary to the left-wing idea that the military exists as a tool for social engineering. Moreover a program such as this is likely to fritter away millions in sunk costs such as training and equipment. Why should the taxpayers be asked to pony up millions for a new, revolving-door military in which soldiers can be expected to serve 36 months at most?
Given AmeriCorps’ track record of fraud, abuse, and politicization, the current debate should be about eliminating the program altogether not about expanding it. But it’s hard to believe that Congress would ever defeat a bill this awful particularly when "fiscal conservatives" gush over AmeriCorps as they do. The rest of America, though, should hope against hope that the "Call to Service Bill" goes down in defeat. Perhaps a few proverbial babies will get tossed out in the process, but dumping this tub full of rancid legislative bathwater would be a huge victory for the taxpayers.