Monday, January 17, 2011
Opinion: Bipartisan case for national service - Eric Tanenblatt - POLITICO.com
You wouldn’t think that new Republican Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Sam Brownback of Kansas would have much in common with the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. But all three have made volunteer “days of service” a centerpiece of their inaugurations.
They are asking citizens to join them in feeding the hungry, assisting the jobless and helping their neighbors in a host of other ways. They join a growing number of governors and mayors who are rediscovering the untapped power of citizen service.
These inaugural service events are not ceremonial gestures. They remind us that citizen service crosses all boundaries — and has always been at the heart of what it means to be an American.
America’s story is the story of volunteers. Since the early days of our nation, volunteers have helped us meet our greatest challenges: patriots who fought for our founding ideals, women who reached for the ballot, civil rights foot soldiers who risked their lives for equality, firefighters who rushed into burning towers, ordinary citizens who came to the aid of a disaster stricken coast.
Last year, in the middle of the Great Recession, approximately 63.4 million Americans volunteered in some way in their communities – the largest increase since 2003. That’s 63.4 million citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life tilting toward problems instead of running away from them.
But America faces tough challenges requiring a new generation of service and service leaders.
National service, as embodied in the three major programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service – AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America – engages millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds in addressing issues of poverty, illiteracy, disasters, public safety, independent living and more throughout the country.
One the crucial ingredient of this federal program’s success has been its support across the political spectrum. In fact, in a spirit of bipartisanship rarely seen in Washington these days, it took Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), working with leaders in the House, just weeks to rally the votes and pass the Serve America Act in 2009.
I am a lifelong Republican — let me give you three reasons why this modest investment in service is consistent with conservative principles and has a powerful catalytic effect on citizen empowerment.
First, national service recognizes that the best solutions come from outside Washington. It invests in citizens to solve problems, tapping the energy and ingenuity of our greatest resource — the American people. In the long run, this is likely to reduce reliance on government.
Second, an investment in national service is a good deal for taxpayers. AmeriCorps was built to be a public-private partnership. It leverages substantial private investment – more than $375 million in non-federal funds each year — to fund such programs as Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity.
Third, while the primary purpose of national service is to get things done for people in need, it has important side benefits. One is the transforming effect it has on those who serve – exposing them to society’s problems, bringing people from different races and backgrounds together, empowering them to act and often putting them onto a lifelong path of civic engagement.
The modern service movement is built on these principles, shared by people of every political persuasion and all walks of life.
We salute Deal, Brownback and Patrick for leading the way. We hope that their actions send a signal that will spread and carry forward through this year and beyond.
We can — and should — have a robust debate about the role and size of government. But in the course of that debate, we should recognize that there are important areas, like volunteer service, where we can find common ground.
Eric Tanenblatt is vice chairman of the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He is the senior managing director at McKenna Long and Aldridge LLP