Do the Nation a Service
President Bush should be commended for using 9/11 to call the country to public service. If only his deeds matched his rhetoric
By John McCain
Special to NEWSWEEK
Sept. 15 issue — The attacks of September 11, for all the terrible suffering they caused, did have one good effect. For a time, they encouraged Americans to remember that as citizens of this good and great country we have responsibilities as well as rights that require our attention.
MORE THAN ANY time in recent years, Americans were unified not just in appreciation for our founding political convictions and the opportunities, prosperity and happiness they engender, but for patriotism that asks more of us than symbolic gestures of allegiance. We remembered that we are part of a cause greater than our individual self-interest, to which we, too, should proudly offer our services. And many Americans looked to their political leaders to welcome and help facilitate their desire for greater civic engagement.
Recognizing this, President Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, summoned Americans to serve causes “larger than self.” He asked Americans to dedicate a total of two years of their lives to public service. He announced the establishment of a cabinet-level USA Freedom Corps Council to oversee the work of the government’s volunteer programs. He promised to double the size of the Peace Corps, and to increase AmeriCorps, the government’s principal domestic-service program, by 50 percent. Since then, the president has often paid eloquent tribute to volunteers in the dozens of community and national-service programs that AmeriCorps supports. As well he should.
Those programs, which range from tutoring at-risk kids to building homes for low-income families to fighting forest fires to homeland-security projects, involve Americans of all ages, ethnicity and backgrounds. They are a credit to our country, and the best assurance that the cynicism about public causes, about the very notion of citizenship, that afflicted some Americans in recent times, especially younger Americans, crested before September 11 and does not threaten the continued progress of this nation.
Yet, since the president first promised to expand opportunities for national service nearly two years ago, I’ve detected little effort by his administration to persuade Congress to provide funds for the plan. The administration has withheld support for legislation that Sen. Evan Bayh and I introduced to increase AmeriCorps. We did win administration approval for a plan to encourage short-term enlistments in the military in exchange for education benefits, and to begin funding national-service programs that help communities with their homeland-security challenges. But beyond this modest support, his administration has neglected to match the president’s rhetoric with concrete steps to keep his promise.
Most disappointing has been administration silence that amounts to tacit approval for the House Republican leadership’s opposition to stopgap funding to help AmeriCorps keep operating at current levels. Due to the fiscal mismanagement of administration officials who ran the government corporation that oversees AmeriCorps, who accepted 20,000 new volunteers without adequate funds to support them, the program faces devastating cuts in its programs. The Senate, by a large majority, quickly appropriated $100 million to meet the shortfall, and new financial controls as well as new management were put in place to prevent the recurrence of sloppy accounting errors. But the House leadership refused to go along, and the White House acquiesced to their opposition. Thus, AmeriCorps has been forced to cut funding for nearly half its programs.
This discouraging lack of good faith means that Candace Spiller, a 19-year-old single mother, can no longer tutor poor children in the Mississippi Delta; Abraham Talbert, a high-school dropout who earned his GED and planned to go to college, will no longer build affordable housing for families in East Harlem, nor go to college, and Don Bullard, a disabled young man with a large heart, will no longer help other disabled Americans become self-reliant and valued members of their communities. These are three of the many thousands of volunteers whose patriotism has been spurned by Washington.
These good Americans have learned that serving a cause larger than themselves is as vital to their self-respect as it is useful to our country. They have kept faith with America. The president who called them, and the Congress that praises them, should keep faith with them.
John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona