On This 9/11, Recapture The Spirit Of Service

As the country remembers the sacrifice and service of many Americans on 9/11, Congress should reinvigorate national service programs like AmeriCorps.

September 9, 2016

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

Fifteen years after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, my thoughts keep returning to a remarkable gathering I attended at Columbia University on a prior 9/11 anniversary, in 2008, and the unfulfilled promise of that inspiring evening.

Like now, the nation was in the midst of a harsh presidential race to succeed a two-term incumbent, a contest exposing large political and cultural divides and also unnerving candidate traits – remember, before the narcissistic, fact-phobic Donald Trump phenomenon, there was G.O.P. vice presidential nominee and Tina Fey look-alike Sarah Palin.

But on that solemn day of remembrance eight years ago, White House contenders John McCain and Barack Obama took a timeout from the usual campaign warfare, even suspending their television ads, to appear together at a morning ceremony at Ground Zero and, later, at a packed forum on national service at Columbia’s Lerner Hall. And I was there.

The presidential standard-bearers appeared onstage separately in back-to-back interviews notably free of rancor and focused on a worthy shared goal: getting more Americans involved in sustained and productive national and community service.

There were some differences in their approaches. More significant, I thought, was where they overlapped. Notably, both contenders for leader of the free world were among the co-sponsors of new bipartisan legislation, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, named for its chief congressional champion, then grappling with deadly brain cancer.

The measure’s aim was to “usher in a new era of service.” It called for incrementally expanding AmeriCorps, the nation’s flagship domestic service program, to 250,000 slots by 2017 ― thereby tripling the number of full-time and half-time participants eligible for a minimal stipend to help cover living expenses and a modest education award, now $5,645, to help pay for college or repay student loans following a full year of intensive work, performing valuable civic tasks like tutoring or mentoring at-risk students, cleaning up public lands, and assisting in disaster recovery efforts, much as many trained AmeriCorps recruits are doing right now in Louisiana, site of last month’s unprecedented flooding.

I left the Columbia forum with a reassuring sense that a substantial AmeriCorps expansion was in the cards.

I was wrong.

Mr. Obama won the election, of course. And in April 2009, he signed the Serve America Act with great fanfare at a White House ceremony.  But as for expanding AmeriCorps, it hasn’t happened. Indeed, today’s estimated 85,000 AmeriCorps positions is actually fewer than the number in fiscal year 2010, and a whopping 150,000 shy of the Act’s 235,000 benchmark for 2016.

This miserable result owes mostly to opposition from right-wing Republican ideologues, and the general collapse of reasoned bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. The absence of a muscular push for more funding by President Obama hasn’t helped either.

So now what? This September 11 will see no forum on national service like the one in 2008, which is too bad. This strange and even harsher election season hasn’t sparked much public conversation regarding AmeriCorps expansion.

Hillary Clinton has offered a plan embracing the existing law’s vision for increasing enrollment to the 250,000 level. She would also boost scholarship awards for AmeriCorps participants who serve full-time for a longer stint of two years, a piece of her related plan to make college more affordable.

Donald Trump has called national service “a beautiful thing” and criticized Democrats for not following through on AmeriCorps expansion. Rather than release a real plan, Mr. Trump, in typical form, conveyed his vague pledge of action (“We’re going to look at it.”) in an off-hand and somewhat garbled response to a voter’s question.

At their first televised debate on Sept. 28 the two candidates should be asked about their national service positions and how they would achieve an AmeriCorps ramp-up Congress has resisted for years.

(Photo: Thinkstock)