Dubya: Closet Neolib?

The Corporation for National Service, parent organization to AmeriCorps, the national youth service organization created by the Clinton administration, gets $733 million in the new Bush budget. Counting inflation, this is roughly a 6 percent decrease from the current fiscal year. Given efforts in past years by the Republican Congress to kill the program, a 6 percent decrease is pretty good. The Corporation for National Service has issued a triumphant press release emphasizing that the budget explicitly pledges to fund 50,000 AmeriCorps members, which happens to be the number AmeriCorps was already aiming for.

So why is George W. Bush lending his support to a program so closely identified with the Big Creep? Because he likes AmeriCorps. He endorsed AmeriCorps during the campaign, even as he attacked Gore for wanting to expand it. (More precisely, Bush attacked Gore for not saying how he would pay for his proposed AmeriCorps expansion.) AmeriCorps jibes well with Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” and it will probably play an important role in Bush’s high-profile plan to assist faith-based charities. Indeed, there’s reason to suspect that AmeriCorps will fare better under Bush than it did under Clinton. “AmeriCorps was always this program off in the corner,” explains Steven Waldman, who served as senior adviser to AmeriCorps CEO Harris Wofford in the mid-’90s. “We tried, but we could never get Clinton to view AmeriCorps as part of whatever the big policy reform was. Can you recall an AmeriCorps component to health care reform?” By contrast, Bush has made AmeriCorps a key component to his high-profile plan to assist faith-based charities. Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, whom Bush has designated to become chairman of the Corporation for National Service’s board, is also overseeing John DiIulio’s new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Goldsmith was one of Bush’s top advisers during the campaign. The board already includes Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who was briefly considered to be Bush’s attorney general. Clinton tended not to put close political associates on the board.

All this will likely prove extremely galling to conservatives who see AmeriCorps as another Vista that pays so-called volunteers to incite the poor to liberal activism. (In fact, Vista is now a part of AmeriCorps.) These days, AmeriCorps is cannily emphasizing the large role religiously affiliated organizations already play in the program. AmeriCorps’ acting CEO, Wendy Zenker, told Chatterbox that the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service has the largest number of AmeriCorps members working for it, with Habitat for Humanity not far behind. Overall, Zenker figures that more than 10 percent of AmeriCorps members are currently working on faith-based projects.

As Chatterbox observed in an earlier item, the shrewd way to kill off AmeriCorps would be to shift its spending to small organizations that are likely to do a terrible job of bookkeeping. This would no doubt produce enough horror stories to fuel a lurid congressional hearing. Leslie Lenkowsky, who sits on the AmeriCorps board, made just this suggestion in the Jan. 22 Weekly Standard, prompting Chatterbox to accuse Lenkowsky of trying to kill AmeriCorps. In an e-mail pasted on to the bottom of that earlier item, Lenkowsky vehemently denied this. In any event, there will probably be some movement to funnel AmeriCorps dollars away from big groups like Habitat for Humanity and toward little groups in strategically placed various congressional districts.

Chatterbox predicts that the big groups will make such a stink about this that it won’t happen. Which is good, because Chatterbox would like to see AmeriCorps thrive. Although the new emphasis on faith-based charity makes Chatterbox a tad uncomfortable (he’s an atheist), he’ll throw in his lot with France’s King Henry IV and concede that AmeriCorps vaut bien une messe.