AmeriCorps the Beautiful?

By Wofford, Harris; Waldman, Steven et al. | Policy Review, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview
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AmeriCorps the Beautiful?

Wofford, Harris, Waldman, Steven, Bandow, Doug, Policy Review

Let's conduct what Charles Murray might call "a thought experiment." Imagine it's 1993 and Newt Gingrich has been sworn in as president. In his Inaugural Address, he pledges to "dismantle the welfare state and replace it with an Opportunity Society." He appoints a task force of the party's most creative conservatives to ensure that citizen action will fill the void left by the withdrawal of government.

There is, by no means, unanimity. The Cato Institute's Doug Bandow argues that as government recedes, charities and volunteer groups will naturally fill the gap. Arianna Huffington says that the nonprofit sector must become more effective and less bureaucratic. Gingrich agrees and advises the task force to look at Habitat for Humanity as a model for truly effective compassion -- inexpensive, nongovernmental, and faith-based.

From Switzerland, William F. Buckley Jr. faxes in a chapter from his book Gratitude calling for a national-service program to engage young people in solving problems outside of government bureaucracies. Jim Pinkerton urges the re-creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps on a massive scale. Colin Powell reminds the group that the most successful race- and class-mixing program has not been busing or quotas but service in the U.S. Army.

William Bennett argues that all government benefits ought to require something of the beneficiaries in turn, shattering the entitlement mentality created by years of Democrat-created welfare programs. Senator Dan Coats suggests that government's role should be confined to helping local community-based institutions solve their own problems.

The task force decides unanimously that there should be no big federal program, with armies of Washington bureaucrats telling communities what to do. Instead, Washington would give money to states to help local community groups help themselves.

And, inspired by Buckley, the members of the task force hit on an innovative idea. Instead of just giving grants to nonprofit groups, thereby creating nonprofit bureaucracies, they could model it after programs like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, to which committed young people devote themselves for a year or two of service. The federal government would in turn provide that young person with a "service scholarship." This would, someone points out, establish a principle that the "educrats" in the higher-education lobby have always opposed: financial aid awarded not on need but merit, merit in this case defined as a willingness to serve one's country.

Pollster Frank Luntz tells Gingrich that even though it's a decentralized, community-based program, the young people it engages should be linked together with a national spirit -- and name. Haley Barbour suggests "RepubliCorps" but Gingrich believes that might deprive it of bipartisan support. He asks his advisors to come up with a better name and gives them one bit of advice, "Don't be afraid to make it sound patriotic. Unlike the other party, we are not embarrassed to be Americans." So Luntz has a brainstorm: Let's call it "AmeriCorps."

The reality, of course, is that Bill Clinton thought of AmeriCorps first, and most Washington Republicans ended up opposing it as typical Big-Government liberalism. Republicans in Congress are now on the wrong side not only of the politics -- AmeriCorps is popular with voters -- but of their own ideology.

There is, however, a striking difference between the comments of Beltway Republicans and those in the rest of the country. New Hampshire governor Steve Merrill has called AmeriCorps "a great success in the state of New Hampshire." Michigan governor John Engler has said AmeriCorps "captures the promise found in all citizens." Arizona governor Fife Symington said he was "enthusiastic and impressed with the work of AmeriCorps." And Massachusetts governor William Weld called it "one of the most intelligent uses of taxpayer money ever." Let us explain why we think these Republican governors are right.

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