Leslie Lenkowsky today confirmed to Chatterbox that he has discussed, with members of the Bush administration, becoming CEO of the Corporation For National Service, which runs AmeriCorps. Word is that Lenkowsky has the nomination sewn up. Close readers of this column will find some irony in this because about six months ago Chatterbox accused Lenkowsky, a Corporation director and professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University, of trying to kill off AmeriCorps. Lenkowsky took strong objection to this in an e-mail that is now attached to the bottom of the earlier item, and Chatterbox has decided to take Lenkowsky at his word. Chatterbox still believes that Lenkowsky’s proposal to “voucherize” AmeriCorps, as outlined in the Jan. 22 Weekly Standard, is a dumb idea. But Chatterbox no longer thinks it is a deliberately dumb idea.
Lenkowsky’s notion is to dole out AmeriCorps grants not to organizations but to the kids who participate in the AmeriCorps program, in the form of a voucher. The voucher could be spent on a charitable endeavor of the kid’s own choosing. Lenkowsky concedes this would make it harder to audit the program, but he’s decided not to worry about that. Chatterbox, on the other hand, thinks that an unaccountable AmeriCorps program is an AmeriCorps program that Congress would not long tolerate. He sees looming newspaper headlines about the money being put to wildly inappropriate, perhaps criminal, uses. During the 1960s, the same impulse to eschew political accountability and give money directly to small neighborhood groups led to a variety of small fiascoes that helped kill off Lyndon Johnson’s federal War on Poverty. Since then, liberals have mostly been cured of their onetime romance with “community action.” Not so, apparently, conservatives.
Is Chatterbox going to the barricades to block Lenkowsky’s likely nomination? Actually, no! Overall, Lenkowsky is well thought of, and he seems committed to finding ways for young people to give something to society. As for Lenkowsky’s dumb idea, Chatterbox feels reasonably confident it will never come to fruition. For one thing, the political imperative behind it has disappeared. Lenkowsky told Chatterbox he actually developed the voucher plan after Harris Wofford, who ran AmeriCorps under Clinton, asked him how AmeriCorps could be made more palatable to conservatives. Since conservative opposition to AmeriCorps was always based mostly on a knee-jerk loathing of Bill Clinton, that opposition has mostly evaporated. (Indeed, Dubya is an apparent AmeriCorps fan.) Moreover, as Chatterbox has noted before, the big charitable organizations that currently receive AmeriCorps dollars, like the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service and Habitat for Humanity, would make such a stink about losing control of the program that Congress probably wouldn’t let it happen. (It’s a little-known fact that, even before Bush was elected president, AmeriCorps was already spending about 10 percent of its budget on “faith-based” social services.) True, Lenkowsky could try to sell voucherization as an expansion of the program, which is how he likes to describe it. But now that Bush has blown the surplus on a huge tax cut, the money for significantly enlarging AmeriCorps likely isn’t there.