National Review Online
January 31, 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

After nationalizing airport security, tweaking due process, bailing out the airlines, and birthing a behemoth-in-the-making known as the Office of Homeland Security, Washington is ready to launch the next phase in the home-front war on terror: federalizing the nation's volunteers.

Promising to "improve homeland security, strengthen our communities and create a common civic experience never before known in America," Senators Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) have coauthored the Call to Service Act. In order to keep that panacean promise, the senators plan to balloon Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps program into a monstrosity five times its current size. If Tuesday night's State of the Union address is any indication, President Bush is eager to help them do just that. According to the president, his newly minted USA FreedomCorps "will expand and improve the good efforts of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to recruit more than 200,000 new volunteers."

Like Bayh and McCain, the president is hoping to tap into America's renewed sense of civic responsibility. "We have been offered a unique opportunity," he intoned, "and we must not let this moment pass." As Bayh and McCain put it in a New York Times op-ed last November, "Americans again are eager for ways to serve at home and abroad. Government should make it easier for them to do so."

In other words, before we can help others, Washington needs to help us.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Americans already have every opportunity to serve their country and their countrymen. Bush, McCain, and Bayh know that because they have lived it. As the grandson of a senator and son of a president, Bush has public service flowing through his veins. McCain, whose father and grandfather were naval officers, flew combat missions in Vietnam and was a POW prior to serving in Washington. The son of a senator, Bayh has been in public service most his adult life. These men didn't need AmeriCorps to channel their civic energies. And average Americans don't either.

According to the Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit groups, 110 million American adults volunteer today — a six-percent increase from 1995. Almost 90 percent of us volunteer when asked. We give the overwhelming majority of our free time to our neighbors and the nonprofit groups they rely on — not the government.

Consider the passengers of Flight 93, doomed yet destined for a hallowed place in American history. They didn't turn to Washington to overpower the terrorists and spare us another massacre on the ground. We didn't ask AmeriCorps to organize the fund drives and blood drives that spontaneously sprang up across the country within hours of the attacks. And we didn't count on government-paid volunteers to help the orphaned and widowed left behind by Sept. 11.

Which brings us to something even more disconcerting than the senators' government-centered definition of service: Washington's upside-down definition of volunteer. According to Webster's, a volunteer is someone who "performs a service willingly and without pay." But according to Washington, a volunteer is someone who receives $4,725 in grants, a monthly cash stipend, health insurance, child-care assistance, and money for relocating. When it's all added up, each AmeriCorps volunteer costs taxpayers about $15,000.

AmeriCorps now employs 40,000 such "volunteers" annually. But if Bayh and McCain — and now, the president — get their way, that number will explode to 200,000 and perhaps as high as 250,000. Fully half of the troops in Bayh and McCain's AmeriCorps will be deputized to fight the home-front war on terror, guarding reservoirs and patrolling nuclear facilities. While that sounds appealing, it means most of the new AmeriCorps/FreedomCorps foot soldiers will be working directly for the government, which is not at all appealing. Moreover, the thought of unarmed twentysomethings guarding Hoover Dam or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is not particularly reassuring.

The "bigger and better" AmeriCorps envisioned by Bayh and McCain — and now endorsed by President Bush — will add a staggering $100 million to the program's annual price tag, which had already swollen from $155 million in 1994 to $237 million prior to Sept. 11. Indeed, the Bayh-McCain plan would earmark almost a billion dollars for national-service programs over the next eight years. (In addition, it would create a new short-term enlistment program for military service.) This new spending binge comes amid recession and war, a war that promises to be long and expensive, more on the order of the Cold War than the Gulf War — not exactly the best time to be spending money on unnecessary programs. The days of bottomless budgets and easy choices are gone; if they didn't end when Bill Clinton left office, they certainly ended on Sept. 11.

Of course, the program's problems don't end there. Many conservatives expressed real objections to the idea behind AmeriCorps when President Clinton proposed the program in 1993. Sept. 11 didn't change the philosophical underpinnings of the program, nor did President Bush's renaming of it. Whatever your opinion of AmeriCorps, it is difficult to deny that the program promotes the political sphere above all others, making government the critical link between the individual and society. For those Americans who believe government is the glue that holds everything else in place, AmeriCorps is a long-overdue solution to the problem of apathy. But for those Americans who believe the individual has rights to exercise free from government interference and responsibilities to fulfill free from government coercion, AmeriCorps is a solution in search of a problem.

By making government the conduit between those who serve and those who are served, AmeriCorps diminishes authentic volunteering, and in the long-term it could even undermine the non-profit sector. Charities, churches, and synagogues simply cannot compete with a program that pays people to do what was once volunteer work. Nor can they compete with a program that is compulsory.

We are fast approaching a time when volunteering will no longer be voluntary. Already, high schools and colleges are requiring students to perform school-approved "volunteer work" prior to graduating. Some employers are mandating the same of employees. McCain and Bayh admit that they want national service to be a required "rite of passage for young Americans." So, we could ultimately end up with all the headaches of a draft (job and family dislocation, life interruption, the prospect of political favoritism, perhaps even AmeriCorps/FreedomCorps protesters, etc.) and none of the advantages (a ready fighting force to wage the battles of the long, hard war that awaits us beyond Afghanistan, to mention just one).

The recognition among Americans that we're connected by something more than interstates and 401(k) plans is one of the few silver linings that outline the dark clouds of Sept. 11. As the president observed, "We have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like. We want to be a Nation that serves goals larger than self." This desire to serve — a desire that carried our forefathers to Lexington and Concord, and our grandfathers to North Africa and Normandy — has been dormant far too long. It is an indictment of our pre-Sept. 11 culture that it took a massacre in the middle of Manhattan to rekindle that desire. But now that Americans have been reawakened to the needs of their neighbor and their nation, it is a mistake to conclude that we need Washington to manage and subsidize our response.

Despite Washington's best intentions and efforts, a super-sized AmeriCorps is not going to help us win the war on terror. That will be done by law enforcement, the military, and average Americans who go about their business despite the ghosts of Sept. 11. Nor will it create new opportunities for service. The only way Washington can do that is by doing and spending less — not more.