In times like these, it’s important to acknowlege good news when it happens. And for me personally, along with countless other long-time advocates of voluntary national service, President Obama’s signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act today was good news that we’ve awaited for a long, long time.
When national service was first emerging as a serious issue in Congress back in the late 1980s (I was involved in drafting a bill introduced by Sen. Sam Nunn at the time), its support in both parties was limited, with many Republicans scoffing at the idea of compensated service and some Democrats worrying that participants might undercut public employees. Ted Kennedy successfully shepherded through Congress a small national and community service demonstration program in 1990, and I was lucky enough to help set up a pilot program in Georgia. Bill Clinton embraced the idea in 1992–against the advice of some of his political advisors–and in 1993 secured authorization of AmeriCorps, the first service program since the Great Society’s VISTA primarily focused on full-time service.
Though Democrats by then had largely come to support voluntary national service, AmeriCorps struggled for survival throughout the balance of the Clinton administration, as congressional Republicans repeatedly sought to kill it, mainly because it was a signature Clinton initiative. It didn’t get much better after 2000, even though George W. Bush devoted much of his 2002 State of the Union Address to a call for expanded national service (and then did little or nothing to implement it).
The 2008 presidential campaign witnessed a revival of interest in national service, as most of the Democratic candidates–most notably Barack Obama and Chris Dodd–made specific national service commitments, while Republican nominee John McCain had long supported a major AmericCorps expansion, once cosponsoring a bill with Evan Bayh that proposed much of what the legislation today accomplished.
But it’s still somewhat astonishing to see this expansion enacted after so many years of frustration. Yes, many conservatives still attack the very idea, and some told preposterous lies about the latest legislation, suggesting it would create re-education camps or lead immediately to compulsory service. But the Kennedy Service Act won 79 votes in the Senate and 275 votes in the hyper-polarized House, and the President didn’t have to look too far, for once, to find Republicans to share some credit with for a signature accomplishment of his own.
Another long-time national service warrior, Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall, had these pertinent words to say when the bill cleared Congress:
Although it didn’t get the attention it deserved, passage of the Serve America bill is a major breakthrough. It enables us to build a uniquely American approach to public problem solving that has proven its worth over the past 15 years in communities across the country. It multiplies opportunities for people to give back to their communities while earning money to pay for their education. It establishes a growth trajectory that eventually could move national service from the margins to the center of our national life, where it belongs.
I think this is an Obama achievement that’s going to be remembered positively for a long time.