March 6, 2008
By Ken Krayeske • 1:45 PM EST
The debate surrounding the GIVE Act in Congress this afternoon is a microcosm of the current stalemate in Congress, according to Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut's Second District.
The GIVE Act, or HR 2857, which should've pass Congress this afternoon but was pulled from the floor because of partisan bickering, is a $981 million or so appropriation that provides money for community service activities in many forms, like expanding AmeriCorps by 100,000 people, increasing a foster Grandparents Program, and creating a $20 million Summer of Service program, which was spearheaded by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of New Haven.
Yet at the same time, the almost $1 billion for volunteerism here is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the $2 trillion price tag on the war in Iraq, the latest figure on the cost, according to Bob Herbert in the New York Times this morning.
The contradiction isn't lost on Courtney.
"I think it is an outcome endemic of a divided government," Courtney said. "That is the problem. There is a complete stalemate about changing course in Iraq that prevents better efforts for this country. Every effort to change policy has run into the math of the present Congress and the White House. We don’t have veto proof margins. We are really just able to redirect priorities in small increments."
Whether or not President George W.Bush will sign the GIVE Act remains to be seen, Courtney said.
"With the College Cost Reduction Act, which he was threatening to veto, we hit the 290 mark," Courtney said. "Once he saw the handwriting on the wall, we got it done. This should fall into that category once the voting is over."
Voting on various amendments happened this morning, with the main debate over an amendment by Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to remove the Summer of Service program, which would create $1,000 stipends for young people who do 100 hours of community service each summer.
Flake, on the House floor, quoting from reports from the Office of Management and Budget, said that AmeriCorps and other projects like that don't work.
"When we end up financing or providing incentives for community service programs, it becomes another government service," Flake said.
Countering him were several Democrats, like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (NY, 4th, Garden City) and Rep. Paul Sarbannes from Maryland.
"Disadvantaged kids are less likely to volunteer than their suburban peers," McCarthy said, noting that volunteers show
gains in Grade Point Average, communication skills and a whole array of other developmental markers.
"This is the foundation for America's future leaders," she said. "A modest investment is an important. We must do everything we can to help every child reach his or her potential."
Summer of Service fills a policy gap which has previously ignored middle school students and should prevent the summer slide, Sarbannes said.
"How our youth spend their time during the summer period may determine if they embark on a course of civic engagement or whether they go down a different path," Sarbannes said.
But to conservative thinkers like Grover "Let's drown government in a bathtub" Norquist, criticize the GIVE Act as a useless waste of taxpayer loot.
"Not to downplay the role of community service, but aren’t volunteers supposed to work for free? This bill would effectively tell kids it is good to 'volunteer' for a paycheck," said a post on the Americans for Tax Reform blog.
Standard rhetoric from the right wing, Courtney said.
"It's consistent with their ownership society philosophy that this country can only function if every man woman and child is left to their own devices," Courtney said. "The AmeriCorps and Summer of Service approach is different than that. It says we are a community."
To address may of the problems in America, we need to have smart, effective programs aimed at children, at-risk youth, and young adults, Courtney said.
"That is the struggle that is going on in the 2008 election," Courtney said. "The GIVE Act is a microcosm of the conflicting philosophies."
Commentator Paul Weyrich said the GIVE Act is more about government interference in community service. He posed a rhetorical question, bemoaning the loss of volunteerism which de Tocqueville found so exciting about this country:
Has American civic life grown so stale and people so isolated that there is no longer any initiative among American citizens to volunteer of their own accord without relying upon federal tax dollars and handouts for support?
I posed it to Courtney. He responded that community service still lives, but it doesn't thrive, as America is suffering bevcause of the growing gap between rich and poor.
"The answer is partially yes," Courtney said. "It is getting harder for families who have dual wage earners and limited economic means to participate as much as they did 20 years ago, before the middle class started to shrink. We are in a difficult place as far as community involvement. I read a story yesterday how little leagues are shrinking in Connecticut, part of it is because kids want to do other things, but also because parents don’t have time to be in these activities. This legislation is aimed at trying to revive positive helpful experiences that enrich kids growing up, and positive projects."
PS - Congressman Courtney's office, with this interview, continues its unbelievable press relations. Brian Farber, his press person, emailed me this morning and asked me if I wanted an interview to follow up on the GIVE story, which I wrote about here.