5.7 Billion Dollar Service Legislation Passes Senate

The U.S. Senate approved the Serve America Act last night, moving forward with the first sweeping reforms of national service programs in 16 years.

S. 277 was adopted by a bipartisan 79-19 vote and now will head to the House of Representatives to iron out differences and amendments to companion legislation.

After House approval, which could come as early as next week, President Barack Obama is expected to sign the measure.

While on the Senate floor, the legislation was renamed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act for the Massachusetts democrat senator who along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was among the main proponents of the bill.

The House last week passed the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act (H.R. 1388), which includes many of the same initiatives but is not identical. For instance, both measures seek to boost AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 250,000 a year, but the Senate version puts a 2017 timeline on it while the House bill targets 2014.

All 19 votes against in the Senate were cast by Republicans. They criticized the measure as being too expensive and it being inappropriate to pay volunteers. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the cost of the legislation at about $5.7 billion over five years (2010-2014) while the House legislation was estimated at closer to $6 billion. The measures would take effect Oct. 1, 2009.

In remarks during discussion on the Senate floor on Monday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called the measure “a huge, well-intended mistake we are making. It serves a point that we need to realize this government needs to stop spending and stop borrowing, stop taxing, and let America work.” He said that he fears the bill “distorts the motivation for volunteerism and will inevitably corrupt private charity.”

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank in Washington, D.C., compared the Serve America Act to former President Herbert Hoover’s failed initiatives during the Great Depression.

But there was bipartisan support for the bill. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), a primary sponsor, called the reauthorization of national service legislation long overdue. “This is a fiscally responsible bill that will improve accountability, reduce bureaucracy and eliminate waste in our national service programs. This bill will leverage the efforts of a few to mobilize millions of faith-based organizations, church groups, nonprofits, and individuals to volunteer their time and energy freely to serve their communities. It does not include any mandates of any kind for individuals or groups to volunteer,” he said.

“The bill is a major expansion of existing national and community programs. Its goal is to tap much more deeply into Americans’ enthusiasm to serve, and direct it to areas and issues where it can make the biggest difference,” said Kennedy, who was among the authors of the bill.

“By increasing opportunities nationwide for Americans to serve and, thus, enabling private citizens to do more for their communities, personal and community responsibility will take the place of direct government aid,” said Hatch, a co-author of the bill, and one of 21 Republicans who voted in favor.

The Serve America Act updates and strengthens national service programs administrated by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency created in 1993. Among the highlights touted in the new legislation are:

  • Tripling the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 a year to 250,000 volunteers a year.
  • Creating four new “corps” to address America’s most pressing challenges, such as energy conservation, healthcare, education and veterans’ issues.
  • Boosting the Eli Segal AmeriCorps Education Award, currently $4,725, to increase incentives for service and postsecondary education. Linking it to the maximum Pell grant in the future could make it reach $8,000 by 2014.
  • Creating a “Summer of Service” program to encourage middle and high school students to engage in a summer of community service and put them on a path to a lifetime of service.
  • Establishing “Encore Fellowships,” a one-year fellowship for Americans 50 and older. John Gomperts, president of Civic Ventures, a national think tank on Boomers, work and social purpose, described Encore Fellowships as “perhaps the biggest innovation in this bill.”

The fellowships would provide people 55 and older “with a way to transition to careers in government and nonprofit service where they can continue to earn salaries, find the meaning many in this stage of life seek, and use their experience to help meet some of the toughest challenges we face today,” said Gomperts, former chief of staff at CNCS.

“Given the problems in our nation right now, we can’t afford to waste their experience. This legislation marks the beginning of a new story about how an aging society can use its experience to make a better society for us all,” he said.

  • Creating a Social Innovation Fund to support the work of successful and dynamic nonprofits, and help them bring their innovative ideas to scale. America Forward, a nationwide coalition of more than 70 “results-oriented, entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations,” said the Social Innovation Fund is a vital step forward in fulfilling the administration’s commitment to invest in social innovation and expand opportunities for citizens to serve their communities.

“In communities across the country, there are innovative solutions to persistent social challenges. The Social Innovation Fund identifies these solutions wherever they exist and helps them grow to new communities,” said Kelly Ward, director of America Forward. “It also promotes greater innovation in the social sector and evaluates nonprofit performance based on results,” she said, adding that the fund provides the financial infrastructure and leverage to create a true growth capital market for the social sector.

  • Establishing a Volunteer Generation Fund to help nonprofits recruit and manager more short- and long-term volunteers.

“Even in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in a generation, Americans everywhere are looking to serve and give back to their country,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “They want to know how they can give and how they can help. They want to be part of an effort to improve society. This bill makes use of this new, invigorated spirit to serve, while putting people to work in specific areas of national need. This is a public investment that will pay dividends long beyond anything we can imagine.”