When President Bush tries to promote his image of "compassionate conservatism," a project he frequently cites to prove his commitment has been AmeriCorps, a kind of domestic Peace Corps initially established during the Clinton administration. Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, promised to increase its strength this year from 50,000 to 75,000 young volunteers.
Now, however, it appears that the promises were all for show. AmeriCorps, under attack by right-wing Republicans in the House, suffering from internal accounting problems, and left undefended by the White House, is facing a funding crisis and may not have enough money to put more than 28,000 volunteers to work.
That leaves countless organizations across the country that run programs in housing, education, healthcare, conservation and even homeland security -- Bush's Citizen Corps program is part of AmeriCorps -- unsure of getting the volunteers they're relying on to provide crucial services this year. And it has forced some AmeriCorps troops to choose between working for free or quitting.
The idealism of the AmeriCorps program has had broad bipartisan appeal, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And the surprising news of its current trouble has frustrated elected officials in both parties.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who in the wake of 9/11 joined Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to cosponsor a 2001 bill that would have expanded the AmeriCorps program fivefold to 250,000 volunteers, fumed at the cutbacks -- and at Bush's failure to back up his promises. "Lip service is no substitute for expanding opportunities for national service," Bayh told Salon in an interview. "The president needs to expend political capital to get this done."
McCain, through a spokesman, echoed that complaint. "This administration's commitment to expanding the AmeriCorps program has not been what it should be," aide Marshall Whitman said in an interview. "Senator McCain believes that we should be expanding rather than limiting opportunities for young Americans to enlist in causes greater than their self-interest."
Despite Bush's promises to expand the program dramatically over last year's $265 million, it encountered strong opposition among congressional conservatives who are usually allied with Bush. The House whip, Republican Dick Armey of Texas, who has called AmeriCorps "obnoxious," and Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., added a measure to the budget bill last fall to cap the program at 50,000 volunteers -- a direct slap at the president's "compassionate" agenda.
Bush saw what was happening, critics say, but did nothing to stop it. Even last December, when the administration knew Congress had capped the number of volunteers at 50,000 in the budget bill, he was still claiming in speeches that the AmeriCorps program was "expanding mightily," Bayh said.
The volunteers are "doing a lot to work to mentor and clean parks and take care of the elderly," Bush said in a Dec. 10 talk to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "Listen, part of making sure America is a compassionate place means acts as simple as walking into a shut-in's home and saying 'I love you' on a regular basis."
Bush signed the $275 million budget -- which included the 50,000-volunteer limit -- last month.
"With his tax-cut program coming up, the president has been unwilling to expend the political capital it would take to get the funding for this program," said one congressional source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Then, in January, the office of Management and Budget delivered a devastating report. Auditors found that last year the agency in charge of AmeriCorps, the Corporation for National Service, had shifted money from a trust fund for the educational grants paid to each volunteer into an account that would pay the volunteers' annual stipends. The OMB, which is run by the executive branch, accused AmeriCorps of using "Enron-like accounting" in its handling of the funds. To offset the improper transfer, the OMB said it was withdrawing $64 million of the current year's AmeriCorps funding of $275 million in order to cover the trust-fund deficit from the prior year.
Full-time AmeriCorps volunteers receive a one-year stipend of up to $9,000 for living expenses. The trust fund was set up to pay out the $4,725 educational grants that each volunteer also earns for a year of service -- grants that may be used for college expenses anytime within seven years following service in AmeriCorps. The loss of that $64 million leaves only enough funds to take on 28,000 volunteers this year, according to a study released Feb. 25 by the Progressive Policy Institute, based in Washington.
Marc Magee, author of the institute study, says of AmeriCorps' financial difficulties: "In the end, we don't know if the crisis is more about the strange and abiding enmity toward national service exhibited by conservative Republicans -- an enmity so deep that normally subservient members of Congress are willing to defy their own president -- or about the president's refusal to expend an ounce of political capital to redeem his own rhetoric."
Sandy Scott, a spokesman for the Corporation for National Service, said the agency is "not pointing any fingers" and says that while it is unlikely that Bush's promise of an expanded AmeriCorps program would be honored, the number of volunteers taken on this year would eventually reach last year's 50,000 level. He offered no clues as to where the funding would come from but said that the corporation is in talks with the Office of Management and Budget.
One possibility is that AmeriCorps might "borrow" from the trust fund once again, in effect fobbing off to the next Congress the responsibility for covering the promised educational-grant funds for this year's volunteers. An OMB spokesman confirms that the idea of letting AmeriCorps shift funds around between stipends and the trust fund is "under review."
Such a return to "Enron accounting" could upset both AmeriCorps supporters and the program's critics in Congress, while raising doubts in the minds of AmeriCorps volunteers about whether the grants they earn will really be there when they try to claim them.
Meanwhile, countless organizations across the country that run social service programs are facing an uncertain future. Among the programs that heavily rely on AmeriCorp volunteers are Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, and the National AIDS Fund. Ironically, the AmeriCorps crisis has especially hurt the reading readiness programs that Laura Bush has been actively promoting.
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had announced plans to almost double the number of volunteers in a program called Just Read, Florida! which was already placing 600 tutors in 203 of the state's elementary schools in low-income areas. Gov. Bush's plan to add another 500 tutors had to be shelved because of his brother's failure to deliver on the promised expansion.
Meanwhile, also left wondering are thousands of young people who had been expecting to spend the year earning college money while doing a year of volunteer community service work. Many are college students who work part-time at projects like tutoring or mentoring, in return earning pro-rated education grants of between $900 and $2,700.
"This funding crisis has made the program lose credibility at the local level," says Amy Gibans McGlashan, vice chairman of the Vermont AmeriCorps agency. "Some of our student volunteers who were working in mentoring programs in local schools and other activities have been told that the educational grants they thought they were earning would no longer be available. They ended up working for free. When promises like that are broken, it really hurts. We think it's going to take a year or more to restore credibility in the program after that."