When Congress comes back from its current two-week recess, members of both parties will be invited to the White House to celebrate what is, in the context of these times, almost a miracle: the signing of the Serve America Act of 2009.
Congress adjourned on Friday for the Easter break with the usual sounds of partisan struggle filling the air, as the House and Senate rushed the budget resolutions for next year to passage. Nothing that one party proposed found favor in the eyes of the other. Tempers were, once again, rubbed raw.
But eight days earlier, when the Senate approved a slightly modified version of the House-passed national service act by an overwhelming 79-19 vote, the atmosphere was completely different. Democrats were congratulating Republicans and Republicans were praising Democrats.
Some of the enthusiasm for this bill can be explained by its subject matter: The array of programs that offer everyone from high school students to senior citizens the opportunity to participate in community and public service projects, either on a full-time or part-time voluntary basis.
Every president since the end of World War II has endorsed these programs and expanded the repertoire, one way or another. Barack Obama and John McCain, who agreed on few things during the election campaign, both called for expanding volunteer opportunities.
But the impetus for this spring’s bipartisan success came from the friendship and partnership of two other senators: Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican from Utah, and Ted Kennedy, the liberal Democratic lion from Massachusetts.
Early last year, just as the partisan emotions of the presidential campaign began to rise, the two began talking to each other about their shared interest in national service. The topic was a natural for both of them. Kennedy’s brother, the late president, had made the proposal for the Peace Corps a centerpiece of his 1960 campaign and had signed the law making it a reality. Hatch, like other young Mormons, had spent two years as a volunteer missionary for his church.
They quickly agreed on a bill that would combine two quite different approaches to national service.
As Hatch said during Senate debate, they decided to marry efforts to expand traditional voluntary, part-time community service, endorsed by generations of Republicans, with increases in government-subsidized, full-time service programs devised by Democratic presidents, beginning with the Peace Corps.
As Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who took over managing the bill because of Kennedy’s illness, recounted to the Senate, the bill triples the size of AmeriCorps, the full-time, government-subsidized volunteer program, to 250,000 slots over the next eight years.
Expansion of the full-time programs is needed because last year, 35,000 college seniors and graduates applied for the 4,000 available slots in Teach for America while 13,000 people tried to get into the Peace Corps, which could accept only one-third of them.
But most of the estimated 61 million Americans who volunteered time last year gave up only a few hours a week to a local church, school, food bank or community group – doing things that are increasingly important in these hard economic times.
Thanks to Hatch, many provisions of the law are aimed at increasing opportunities for those unpaid volunteers, including help to these organizations in recruiting, training and deploying the volunteers, and to the volunteers themselves in finding organizations that need them.
Despite all the good will, 19 senators, all Republicans, including the party’s two top leaders, voted against the law. The arguments were spurious. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, for example, charged that “this new federal bureaucracy would, in effect, politicize charitable activity around the country.”
But John Bridgeland, the former director of George W. Bush’s domestic policy council who lobbied for the bill, points out that its supporters ranged from AARP to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Often, passage of a bill leaves the winning side exhausted and the losers bitter. Working together on this bill left most Republicans and Democrats feeling good about themselves.
They could feel that way more often if they would just work past the excessive partisanship.
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