Share
Facebook
Twitter
Print
arroba Email

It’s Ba-ack! National Service 1989 — Put Brakes on the Omnibus

Original Article

Wall Street Journal; New York; Oct 16, 1989; By ;

Edition: Eastern edition
Start Page: 1
ISSN: 00999660
Abstract:
Why does the national-service virus keep coming back? Perhaps it is because utopian nostalgia evokes both military experience and the social gospel. If only we could get America’s wastrel youth into at least a psychic uniform we might be able to teach self-discipline again and revive the spirit of giving.

Choice of the volunteer military in the 1970s seemed to doom national service as much as the draft. But the virus was kept alive in sociology departments until a couple of years ago, when it again was let loose. This time it attempted to invade two connected problems, the rising cost of higher education and the rising expense to the federal government of educational grants and loans. Why not keep and even expand the loans and grants, the advocates reasoned, but require some form of service from each recipient? Military service, moreover, could be a national-service option.

In this case, the new recipe for national service called for throwing many assorted legislative leftovers into one kettle: a demonstration project for educational aid (particularly satisfying to the DLC and Sen. Sam Nunn), a similar demonstration program for youth conservation (a la Sen. Chris Dodd), a competitive grants program to states to spark youth and senior citizen volunteer projects (a Kennedy specialty), a community service work-study program for students (pleasing to the palate of Sen. Dale Bumpers, among others), plus engorgement of the VISTA volunteer program and the Retired Senior Volunteer, Foster Grandparent, and Senior Companion programs. Before the menu is printed, the House may add more ingredients, also changing the initial price, now posted at some $330 million.

Full Text:
Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Oct 16, 1989

Proposals for government-operated “national service,” like influenza, flare up from time to time, depress the resistance of the body politic, run their course, and seem to disappear, only to mutate and afflict public life anew.

The disease metaphor comes to mind, of course, not as an aspersion on the advocates of national service. Rather, it is born of frustration with having to combat constantly changing strains of a statist idea that one thought had been eliminated in the early 1970s, along with smallpox.

It is back with us again, in the form of legislation to pay volunteers under a “National and Community Service Act,” a proposal with a serious shot at congressional passage this fall.

Why does the national-service virus keep coming back? Perhaps it is because utopian nostalgia evokes both military experience and the social gospel. If only we could get America’s wastrel youth into at least a psychic uniform we might be able to teach self-discipline again and revive the spirit of giving.

A quarter of a century ago national service was promoted as a way of curing the manifest inequities of the draft — by, of all things, expanding the draft. Those of us who resisted the idea then suspect today that an obligation of government service for all young people is still the true long-term aim of many national-service backers, despite their protests that present plans contain no coercion.

Choice of the volunteer military in the 1970s seemed to doom national service as much as the draft. But the virus was kept alive in sociology departments until a couple of years ago, when it again was let loose. This time it attempted to invade two connected problems, the rising cost of higher education and the rising expense to the federal government of educational grants and loans. Why not keep and even expand the loans and grants, the advocates reasoned, but require some form of service from each recipient? Military service, moreover, could be a national-service option.

Thus, undoubtedly it was hoped that the new strain of national service would prove contagious, infecting patriotic conservatives, pay-as-you-go moderates, and idealistic liberals. The Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group sponsoring the plan, surely thought it might help the party to attract support, especially among college students and their parents. A provision allowing grants to be applied to first-home purchases was added to appeal to those who had had enough of schooling.

The DLC plan envisaged “volunteers” planting trees, emptying bedpans, tutoring children, and assisting librarians for $100 a week, tax free, plus medical care. With a tax-free $10,000 voucher payment at the end of each year, the volunteers would be making a wage comparable to $17,500 a year. Mind you, most of “the volunteers” would be unskilled 17- to 18-year-olds, some not even high school graduates, and many saving money by living at home. They would be doing better financially under national service than many taxpayers working at the same kinds of jobs and perhaps supporting families.

As it happened, political resistance developed among educational and minority interests that count on the present education grant system, so the national-service devotees decided to abandon the supposedly crucial principle of “give in order to get.” Opposition to national service from the Pentagon, which wants to protect its own recruitment process, also led to the military-service option being dropped.

Clearly, a new rationale for national service had to be cooked up. What better place to turn than Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Labor Committee, that great stove of government expansionism, where many a stagnant pot of porridge is kept on the back burner until it can be brought forward and presented as nouvelle cuisine?

In this case, the new recipe for national service called for throwing many assorted legislative leftovers into one kettle: a demonstration project for educational aid (particularly satisfying to the DLC and Sen. Sam Nunn), a similar demonstration program for youth conservation (a la Sen. Chris Dodd), a competitive grants program to states to spark youth and senior citizen volunteer projects (a Kennedy specialty), a community service work-study program for students (pleasing to the palate of Sen. Dale Bumpers, among others), plus engorgement of the VISTA volunteer program and the Retired Senior Volunteer, Foster Grandparent, and Senior Companion programs. Before the menu is printed, the House may add more ingredients, also changing the initial price, now posted at some $330 million.

It is widely known that “too many cooks spoil the broth,” but that wisdom does not necessarily reflect the view of the cooks, especially if they are senators. The “omnibus” bill coming out of Congress may be unwholesome glop, but the assorted chefs are happy and the restaurant is pushing the dish very hard. The aroma of patronage is in the air.

Is the voluntary sector so weak that it needs such unsolicited assistance? On the contrary, it is as robust as ever. According to the Gallup Poll, American adults contribute an average of two hours a week of service, while financial contributions to charity in the 1980s have risen 30% (adjusted for inflation).

Even if government does see various “unmet needs,” national service is not the way to meet them. If we want to support students, we might adopt the idea used in other countries of offering more scholarships based on something called “scholarship,” rather than on the government’s idea of “service.” Or we might provide a tax credit for working students. What we do not need to do is start a war, and then try to justify it by creating a GI Bill.

To the extent we lack manpower to staff menial jobs in hospitals, for example, we should raise pay, pursue labor-saving technology, or allow more legal immigration, rather than overpay high school graduates as short-term workers and cause resentment among permanent workers paid lesser amounts to do the same jobs.

Will national service, in the current highly politicized and opportunistic form exert enough appeal to get adopted? Not necessarily. Polls show wide, generalized support for some vague concept of service, but the bill now under discussion lacks any passionate public backing. Nonetheless, Senate Democrats are organizing a roll of supporting “associations,” “societies” and “councils,” some of which may hope to receive the paid “volunteers.”

So far, the president seems ill-disposed to substitute any of the omnibus for his own free-standing proposal to endow a “Points of Light” foundation with $25 million to inform citizens of all ages and exhort them to genuine volunteerism.

However, even this admirable plan could become objectionable if the White House gives in to congressional Democratic pressure to add to the scope of the president’s initiative or to involve the independent foundation in “brokering” federal funds for volunteer projects.

There’s no need for such concessions. The omnibus can be defeated, the virus controlled, and real service protected. National service, the utopian idea, still won’t go away then, of course, but the millions of knee-socked youth performing works of “civic content” will be mobilized only in the imagination of their progenitors.

Mr. Chapman is a fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute. This article is adapted from remarks at a Hoover Institution conference on national service, in which Mr. Szanton also participated.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Civic Leadership.