Obama, Congress Flunk National-Service Test

President Barack Obama hands Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the first pen as he signs the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, Tuesday, April 21, 2009. President Barack Obama hands Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the first pen as he signs the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, Tuesday, April 21, 2009. Charles Dharapak/AP File Photo

With the audacity to overreach, President Obama commemorated the fifth anniversary of the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act on Monday by calling it "the boldest expansion of opportunities to serve our communities and our country since the creation of AmeriCorps."

He's wrong. National-service advocates, including Democrats otherwise loyal to Obama, say the law has gotten little more than lip service from the White House—and far less than that from House Republicans.

In fact, both the Obama administration and Congress received failing grades Monday in a report by ServiceNation and Voices for National Service, two groups advocating for programs that support volunteerism and community service.

This must be what Obama considers to be bold and expanded:

  • From 2010 to 2013, the number of people serving the nation through AmeriCorps declined by nearly 18,000 because of a lack of funding from Washington, according to the report.
  • This year, despite soaring number of applicants for AmeriCorps positions, fewer than 80,000 national-service members are serving. That is 120,000 short of the law's goal for 2014.

The 2009 act authorized the growth of AmeriCorps from 75,000 positions in 2008 to 250,000 by 2017. That pledge appears unattainable, given the resistance of Republicans to support national service and Obama's inability to overcome the GOP.

"As we celebrate this anniversary," Obama wrote in a letter to national-service advocates Monday, "let us recommit to fulfilling its promise." One recipient, who asked not to be identified, emailed me a copy of the letter and scoffed, "You can't recommit to something that's never been committed to."

Zack Maurin, executive director of ServiceNation, put it more diplomatically. "Congress and the White House need to make good on their promise," he said. "The millennial generation is desperate for opportunities to work and gain experience, while communities across the country need help tutoring and mentoring struggling students, rebuilding after natural disasters, and helping people climb out of poverty."

The law, named in honor of Sen. Edward Kennedy, an advocate for national service who died in 2009, builds upon the legacies of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, George H.W. and George W. Bush, and Clinton, each of whom played a role in developing the modern-day national-service system. While Obama's immediate predecessor grew AmeriCorps by 50 percent, the program has flatlined under the current administration.

The report lays most of the blame on Republicans, noting that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has called repeatedly for the elimination of national-service funding. But it also criticizes Obama for finessing the numbers in an attempt to disguise the lack of progress.

I've written previously about the many Democrats who believe the president has not fought Republicans hard enough on behalf of AmeriCorps. In their report released Monday, the two advocacy groups issued a report card grading Washington's leaders, with an "A" awarded in three areas: focusing national service toward the nation's greatest needs; developing interagency partnerships that take advantage of national-service programs; and steering service members toward national disaster relief.

In addition to the failure to expand the program, an "F" grade was issued against the goals of increasing service opportunities for older Americans and enhancing service-leading opportunities for the young.

"This report highlights a leadership opportunity for Congress and the administration to step up and make good on the promise made five years ago to expand and strengthen national service," said AnnMaura Connolly, president of Voices for National Service.

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