Armey rips Bush volunteer proposals
By Bill Sammon and Dave Boyer
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
February 6, 2002
House Majority Leader Dick Armey yesterday attacked President Bush's proposal to spend $560 million next year on nationwide volunteer programs, calling the plan " obnoxious " and asserting that Americans " give best when we give from our own hearts. "
The Texas Republican said he plans to fight the president's push to increase federal funds for organizations such as AmeriCorps, created during the Clinton administration.
" He is so wrong on that. I do not understand why anyone would embrace AmeriCorps. It was not a good idea then, and it is not a good idea now, " Mr. Armey said.
Asked whether the president will have a hard time pushing the plan through Congress, Mr. Armey said, " As far as I can make it possible he will. I just wanted you to know it is not only Democrats' bad ideas that upset me. "
The majority leader's comments drew a swift and direct response from Mr. Bush yesterday.
" I think the country needs to provide opportunities for people to serve, expanding AmeriCorps, expanding Senior Corps — it's a good way for Americans to fight evil, " the president said in Pittsburgh, where he touted homeland-defense efforts.
" There's all kinds of opportunities: Senior Corps is one opportunity; AmeriCorps is one; church, synagogue or mosque programs are another, " Mr. Bush said.
AmeriCorps currently pays about half its 50,000 members $9,300 for 1,700 hours of work during a year — roughly 10 months of 40-hour weeks. The other 25,000 receive $4,725 to be used for education expenses, said Leslie Lenkowsky, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent group of AmeriCorps.
In his State of the Union address last week, Mr. Bush put forth his plan for a USA Freedom Corps to oversee an unprecedented expansion of volunteer programs.
The president hopes to draw 200,000 new volunteers to community service through the existing AmeriCorps program and Senior Corps, which has about 500,000 people serving in part-time volunteer programs.
Mr. Bush's plans call for adding an additional 25,000 members to AmeriCorps, which will receive $230 million of the $560 million to be directed in fiscal year 2003 to volunteer groups.
The additional cost will be well worth it, Mr. Lenkowsky said, because each paid worker brings on at least three volunteers. Paying " volunteers " is necessary because they organize and manage other volunteers, he said.
AmeriCorps sends its members to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations a year, including Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for the poor.
" The people who build houses are the unpaid volunteers, " Mr. Lenkowsky said. " What AmeriCorps members do is they help recruit volunteers, they make sure the wood, the hammers, the nails are there. They operate so that when the real volunteers come on Thursday morning to start building those houses, they aren't standing around saying, 'Now what do we do?' "
But Mr. Bush's call for Americans to devote two years — 4,000 hours — out of their lifetimes to community service had made others on Capitol Hill balk at the price tag of the president's proposal.
Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said Mr. Armey's assessment " makes some sense. "
" When his father, President Bush Sr., talked about a thousand points of light, he was talking about volunteerism and community and church-related organizations helping out, " Mr. Burton said in an interview.
" The AmeriCorps project, I never did think was the right approach. An extension of that is just creating more government, and I'm not sure that's the right approach, " Mr. Burton said.
" I agree with President Bush probably 95 percent of the time, and there's very few times I disagree with him, " he added. " But this is one. "
A senior House Republican aide said Mr. Armey " was just stating what a lot of members think. "
Mr. Armey, who is retiring at the end of his term, did not mince words on the subject yesterday.
" I consider the conceptual framework of AmeriCorps as obnoxious. We give least well when we give at the direction and supervision of the government, you know, and the idea that government can teach charity to America rings very hollow with me; for example, like AmeriCorps, where we are going to give our kids $30,000 worth of jobs and benefits to teach them about volunteerism. "
Mr. Bush said he stands by his proposal.
" The key point I was making in my speech is that many in the country are asking how they can help, how they can help fight terror, " the president told reporters during a tour of Pittsburgh Medical Center. " And one way to do so is through acts of kindness and compassion and decency. "
Mr. Bush said it is important for Americans to channel their strong feelings over the September 11 terrorist attacks into something positive for the nation.
He also cited other community-service programs available to Americans who want to help. " As I said in my speech, if you don't know where to serve your two years of public service, or 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime, here's a really good opportunity, " Mr. Bush said. " I think Congress understands that we need to provide opportunities for teachers to teach in the inner-city schools, and seniors to provide homeland defense volunteer activities. "
He added: " And the good news is, a lot of Americans are responding. "
Mr. Lenkowsky, who said AmeriCorps is undergoing changes to make it more cost-efficient, offered an option for Mr. Armey's days in retirement.
" He's going to be looking for something to do next year, and if he'd like to become a member of AmeriCorps, or — dare I say it, our Senior Corps program — we'd love to have him, " Mr. Lenkowsky said.
• Joseph Curl contributed to this report. Bill Sammon reported from Pittsburgh.