A move to greatly increase the number of Americans who participate in national-service programs — championed by a wide variety of nonprofit groups — cleared its final major hurdle today, when the Senate adopted the Serve America Act.
Senators approved the legislation — which would more than triple the number of participants in AmeriCorps and create an array of new volunteer programs for people of all ages — with a bipartisan vote of 79 to 19.
The vote came after several days of debate with a strong “feel-good” air to it, as many senators discussed their own volunteer or service work and pointed to examples of successful programs in their districts.
“When the American people hear about what we have done this week, it is such an antidote to last week,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, referring to the uproar over the bonuses awarded to executives at the American International Group insurance company. She called the legislation an “opportunity ladder” for people who want to help solve the country’s problems.
The Senate debate was somewhat poignant because Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, was unable to attend most of the proceedings because he is ill with a brain tumor.
He attended the final vote today, however, winning a standing ovation from the senators. On a motion by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah – a key Republican sponsor – the lawmakers agreed to rename the bill the “Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.”
Some Republican senators criticized the bill for being too expensive and inserting too much government into what they said should be private acts of volunteerism. But Senator Hatch said the bill married the “liberal” instinct of wanting government to help people in need with the “conservative” concept of placing more power in the hands of individuals.
“It’s not all that often we are able to work together to satisfy both of those ideals,” he said on the Senate floor, “but I believe we have done so with this legislation.”
The bill now goes to the House, which adopted its own version of the legislation, the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act, earlier this month. The Senate version of the bill is somewhat different. For example, it would triple the number of AmeriCorps participants to 250,000 by 2017, while the House wanted to do it by 2014. But a spokesman for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said the body is expected to adopt it without further amendments on Monday.
It then goes for signature to President Obama, who has advocated expanding national service since early in his presidential campaign. After he signs it, Congress will start appropriating money for the programs. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the new and expanded programs would cost about $6-billion over five years.
Among its provisions, the Serve America Act — the first update of programs operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service since 1993 — would create:A Social Innovation Funds Pilot Program, which would provide “venture capital” to help nonprofit groups that have developed successful ways to tackle social problems expand their work. It would make $50-million available in 2010, growing to $100-million in 2014, with matching funds required from other sources. A Volunteer Generation Fund of $50-million in 2010, growing to $100-million in 2014. Money would go to nonprofit groups or state national-service commissions for programs to help charities recruit and manage volunteers. New service “corps” in the fields of clean energy, health, poverty, and services to veterans. Encore Fellowships and Silver Scholarships for people age 55 and above.
The bill would also increase the education award to AmeriCorps participants from $4,725 to $5,350 and tie it to the amount that Pell Grants give to poor college students.
Many nonprofit groups have been pushing for the national-service legislation for some time, notably the coalitions ServiceNation and America Forward.
“To be on the verge of a quantum leap within 100 days of the new administration and with such strong bipartisan support, this is something we dreamed about,” Alan Khazei, chief executive of Be the Change — a civic-engagement group in Boston that helped start ServiceNation — said shortly before the vote.
Others praised the bill for offering new opportunities for older Americans. “Most people think national service is for young people,” said a statement issued by John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures, a group that promotes opportunities for older people. “And it is. But once President Obama signs this legislation, service will be for people of all ages.”