Congress’s bipartisan national-service bill would be a powerful tonic for what’s ailing America

Opinion by David IgnatiusColumnist July 8, 2020 at 6:07 p.m. EDT

Congress is weighing a big idea as it bargains over the next stimulus package: a bipartisan proposal to expand national-service programs to create jobs, help contain the coronavirus pandemic and begin to unify a divided country.

This column has been updated.

This plan would be a powerful tonic for some of what’s ailing the United States. It’s evocative of the New Deal programs that helped the United States through the Great Depression. And it’s supported by a star-studded group of Republicans and Democrats, including many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from both parties who are backed by the bipartisan political action group With Honor.

The battleground this week is the Senate. Urging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to include the $16 billion measure in new stimulus legislation are the bill’s co-sponsors, Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, both Mississippi Republicans, and Sen. Christopher A. Coons, a Delaware Democrat. Read More

Joining them is a diverse Senate alliance that includes people you’d like to see, at least temporarily, working together: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Lindsey O. Graham (R.-S.C.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Angus King (I-Maine), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

The House is waiting for Senate action, but the proposal is backed there by a bipartisan team that includes two veterans, Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) and Mike Waltz (R-Fla.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is likely to support the measure if it’s included in a Senate stimulus package, her colleagues say.

Let’s be honest: Centrists like me gush about proposals like this that cross party lines to serve the common good. But national service isn’t a cure-all. It won’t stop racial and economic injustice or resolve the other dizzying problems that will confront the next president. But it’s a start. It will at least help more Americans to work together for the country — the way our military, first responders and front-line health-care workers do now.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The Senate proposal is dubbed with one of those catchy acronyms beloved by legislators, the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act. It would provide $16 billion over three years to double the number of AmeriCorps positions to 150,000 from 75,000 in the first year, and then increase to 200,000 and then 250,000 in the second and third years. The bill would also increase the stipend to $22,000 from $15,000. After completing service, young people would be eligible for $6,000 grants to finance their educations at community colleges.AD

All 50 states have AmeriCorps programs, coordinated through the Corporation for National and Community Service. The newly commissioned national-service volunteers could work at anything from building houses (through Habitat for Humanity and other faith-based programs) to feeding hungry people (through the Agriculture Department’s Anti-Hunger Corps).

Wicker, a Republican co-sponsor in the Senate, sees the bill as a bipartisan way to put people back to work after the pandemic: “Helping our nation respond to and recover from the coronavirus outbreak will require an all-hands approach,” he says. Coons, the Democratic co-sponsor, sees the legislation as a way to provide meaningful work for “millions of young people who aren’t sure what to do next.”

Some advocates of national service argue that it should be mandatory, like the draft. But Coons notes the difficulty of quickly organizing jobs for what he estimates would be 3 million draft-age Americans. Better to scale up slowly, he says. But over time, “we should do everything we can to make service an expectation.”AD

What’s powerful about this idea is that it would draw together people from different racial, economic and geographic backgrounds into a common enterprise. In this way, argues David McCormick, an Army veteran who is now chief executive of Bridgewater Associates and has helped mobilize support for the bill, “National service would go a long way toward solving some of the most important challenges our country is facing — to overcome our divisions and reaffirm our common purpose.”

Waltz, a Republican and former Army Green Beret, argues that the legislation could be “a game changer for the country.” He says that he tells skeptical Republican colleagues: “If we’re going to send out stimulus checks, let’s get some service for it.” Houlahan, a Democrat who served as an Air Force officer, agrees that national service “is a way of pulling our nation together” in crisis.

When my father, who will turn 100 in November, talks about the Great Depression, he remembers how President Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized idle people — and national hope — through programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.AD

Perhaps Senate Republicans will do the right thing and support a big idea whose time has come again.

The Post’s View: The U.S. needs an army of workers to reopen. These senators have an idea for getting it.591 Comments