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Commentary: Congress should look to boost public service ideas

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WASHINGTON -- Every politician speaks glowingly about service to country, but few see national service as an important political issue. The temptation is to dismiss service proposals made by someone in the other political party as trivial or part of some hidden agenda.

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When the first President Bush called for "a thousand points of light," Democrats chuckled at the metaphor and saw his calls for volunteerism as an inexpensive way to keep his promise to create a "kinder, gentler nation."

When President Clinton pushed AmeriCorps, some Republicans denounced the idea of "paid volunteerism" and saw the national service program as an effort to create a new generation of progressive activists. Maybe one of them might become a Democratic president.

As it happens, we do have a former community organizer as president, though funding for his early work came from a Catholic organization, not AmeriCorps. Both Barack and Michelle Obama have a passion for the service idea, and, with almost no fanfare, the United States is close to making its largest commitment to civilian service since the New Deal.

This week, the House is expected to pass a bill that would increase the number of federally funded service slots to 250,000, and the Senate will soon begin moving similar legislation of its own. The proposals build on the initiatives of our last three presidents -- yes, this is an issue on which George W. Bush deserves credit, too -- and it may even produce that much prized but elusive Washington commodity: a large bipartisan majority. The House proposal won committee approval last week with overwhelming support from both parties.

Credit for the consensus goes in part to Washington's most durable bipartisan duo, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, co-sponsors of the Serve America Act.

Utah's Hatch has worked with his Democratic friend from Massachusetts so often and so respectfully that when he describes their joint bills -- the most famous is the State Children's Health Insurance Program -- he insists on referring to them in one big mouthful as "Kennedy-Hatch-Hatch-Kennedy." He doesn't want either name to get second billing.

Volunteering is very much part of Hatch's Mormon tradition, and he and his children served as missionaries when they were young. But Hatch also speaks for a strong strain of conservatism that sees the creed as being about more than just support for free markets and low taxes.

In fact, the service idea is rooted in the best and most communitarian forms of both conservatism and progressivism.

As William F. Buckley Jr. suggested in the title of a book he wrote later in his life, "Gratitude" is a conservative disposition, a belief that for all our individual endeavors, we owe a debt to the free society that nurtures us and affords us our opportunities.

"Why would Republicans and conservatives support this bill?" Hatch asked during an interview, and then he answered, noting that it promotes help for faith-based as well as secular groups and gives a vital role to state governments. Modest government support for a core of volunteers also strengthens the capacity of hundreds of community groups to grow and do more. AmeriCorps' 75,000 existing volunteers, Hatch said, "leverages out to roughly 2.2 million traditional volunteers."

For its part, a sophisticated progressivism recognizes that while government is essential, one of its roles should be to foster a thriving voluntary sector. Government alone cannot solve all the problems that ail us, and the responsibilities of citizenship encompass more than just paying taxes.

Rep. George Miller, a Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee and is leading the House effort for a service bill, is known as one tough legislative strategist. But he is positively tender when he describes visiting Habitat for Humanity projects, meeting with Teach for America volunteers, or spending time with church groups that have provided relief in natural disasters. "It's one of the great rewarding things in politics," he told me.

There is also this: In the middle of a deep recession, when jobs, particularly for young people just entering the work force, are in short supply, could there be any more efficient (or, face it, a cheaper) way to cut unemployment than through modest subsidies for voluntary service? When they sit down to agree on a final bill, the House and Senate should ramp up to 250,000 volunteers quickly rather than drag the growth over several years. In this case, idealism is realism's best ally.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is dionne@wctrib.com.

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