Lamakers mull requiring youths to serve
Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 12:17 a.m.
WASHINGTON - Between drugs and dropping out of high school, Matt Sims said he was going nowhere.
Realizing his future was bleak, the 20-year-old in Gainesville set his sights on AmeriCorps, a federal one-year service program that President Clinton created in 1993 and President Bush has promoted.
Sims said he quit drugs so he could qualify for the Dignity Project, an AmeriCorps group that builds houses and fixes up cars for the poor. He would earn a wage and learn a skill, with a federal scholarship for trade school or college promised at the end of a year.
"Something in my head clicked," said Sims, who quit school in 10th grade but has since earned his equivalency diploma. "I just didn't want to be a loser for the rest of my life."
Some federal lawmakers think community service can be so valuable for young people that it should be required. With recent talk of reinstating the draft, homeland security needs piling up and domestic services being cut by strained state and federal budgets, lawmakers are asking what young people should do for their country - and in the process, for themselves.
The idea of mandatory service, civilian and in some cases military, is gaining traction.
"That's an idea that has long appealed to me," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who added that he doesn't think the military draft is necessary right now. "The idea that all Americans at some point in their life . . . should make some contribution to the nation's well-being would not only be valuable to the country in areas from mentoring students to helping an environmental preservation project but would also give people a sense of nationhood."
Mandatory service is unlikely to pass Congress in the near future, but the debate could add pressure to expand AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and other programs. Cost is one reason for resistance. AmeriCorps costs about $400 million a year and the Peace Corps costs $275 million.
Freshman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is working on legislation that would make all people at a certain age, possibly 18 to 24, eligible for lotteries for mandatory military and civilian service. Sensing momentum, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., has revived legislation that he introduced several times before, that would reinstate the military draft with a civilian service requirement for those not chosen for military duty.
"When I was in high school, there were a lot of troubled kids, as there are now. The males who joined came back fine upstanding citizens," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a freshman Florida Republican, who supports the draft. "It was character building."
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., recently introduced legislation to revive the draft largely to make a point to lawmakers about the gravity of war and the inequities of who serves. If the Bush administration insists on sending combat troops into Iraq, the congressman said, then "the sacrifice should be shared by all."
Along with the draft question has come the underlying service issue.
Sims is an example of how controversial this debate can be.
He and other AmeriCorps hopefuls across the country have been stopped from joining since November, when slots filled up in record speed and Congress failed to expand it. President Bush promoted AmeriCorps in his State of the Union Address last year and promoted it in visits around the country, but key Republicans blocked his request to expand AmeriCorps from enlisting 50,000 a year to 75,000.
The Dignity Project found money to hire Sims anyway, but his work won't count toward an AmeriCorps scholarship until the freeze is lifted on recruits. The Senate last week passed a 2003 spending bill with Republican language that caps enlistment at 50,000, again defying the president.
Volunteer service links Bush and some of his usual foes. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who ran against Bush in the Republican primary in 2000, would expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 by 2010. Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat running for the presidential nomination in 2004, has proposed grants to high schools that require community service for graduation.
Some conservatives oppose AmeriCorps because it increases the size of government, and they say that financial incentives such as scholarships undercut the idea of volunteerism. Others argue that expanding AmeriCorps is a step toward a national service requirement.
"That's the next logical debate to have," said Matthew Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that opposes AmeriCorps expansion and mandatory service.
He said the draft issue is stirring interest in those questions.
Indeed, some lawmakers argue expansion of AmeriCorps and its older foreign service cousin, the Peace Corps, should lead to a requirement for young people.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he recently considered introducing legislation to mandate national service but decided the country isn't ready to accept it. He wants to drastically expand both the Peace Corps, which has room for only 7,000 volunteers, and AmeriCorps as groundwork for the larger move.
"I think that every young person would have a very beneficial experience from service back to their country," Nelson said.
Marc Magee, director of the Center for Civic Enterprise at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank, said service programs are ready for a boost.
"I think it's a potent issue and I don't think it's going away," Magee said. "A war in Iraq will only make it that much bigger."
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