Action on Youth Service Is Bottled Up Pending Clearer Signal From President
Washington--Federal policymakers are discovering that engineering the behind-the-scenes wiring for a national youth-service program that will ignite a thousand points of light may be considerably more difficult than anticipated.
Aides to President Bush, who has vowed to make volunteerism a major theme of his Administration, are a month behind their own schedule for coming up with a national youth-service proposal.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, efforts to meld this year's flurry of youth-service bills into a single plan have been stymied both by uncertainties about Mr. Bush's position and by questions about the future role of action, the existing federal domestic-volunteer agency.
All in all, it has been a "twilight-zone period," Gregg Petersmeyer, the White House aide in charge of developing a national-service proposal, observed in an interview last week.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering has been so intense in recent days that some people have been speculating that Mr. Petersmeyer might even be asked to leave his luxurious new office in the Old Executive Office Building to take over as head of action.
Although Mr. Petersmeyer denied that rumor last week, he made clear that he would not be rushed into putting forth a specific program before he had considered every aspect of the youth-service issue.
Plans for Mr. Bush's proposed Youth Entering Service--yes--Foundation will not be ready until at least mid-June, he said.
"The stakes are so high, if we get it wrong ... we will have done something immoral that we will regret for many years to come," he said.
But while Administration officials talk about the need for careful preparation, some youth-service advocates are beginning to wonder whether Mr. Bush's dramatic campaign rhetoric about volunteerism will ever materialize into something more substantial than a catchy slogan.
"I thought last winter that President Bush was going to be a leader on this issue," said Donald J. Eberly, executive director of the Coalition for National Service. "But the lack of activity so far has been a real disappointment."
"This administration, and Mr. Petersmeyer in particular, hasn't said anything substantial yet," argued John Briscoe, director of PennServe, a state agency that creates youth-service opportunities in Pennsylvania.
"I know the first 100 days are not magic," he added, "but I would have hoped they would say something about what they will do by now."
Energy Secretary Testifies
In his first budget request, Mr. Bush anticipated spending $100 million on yes over the next four years. Beyond that, the clearest indication so far of Administration thinking on youth service came in testimony last month by Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Mr. Watkins's testimony shed little new light, however, on the exact form the foundation will take.
The goal of yes, he said, would be to call everyone to action and to promote service through existing and new programs.
National service would not be required under the yes initiative, he said. But the foundation would encourage institutions to offer incentives, such as schools offering credit for community service.
Although yes will not offer any financial compensation for those who serve, Mr. Watkins said, it will reward good works with recognition.
The initiative would also seek to "remove barriers to service, including the high cost of liability insurance, through tort reform and other measures," he noted.
Some youth-service groups--especially full-time youth corps that do a lot of environmental work outdoors--have warned that institutions might be reluctant to participate in such programs, for fear of lawsuits arising from injuries to young volunteers.
Mr. Petersmeyer said in the interview that the insurance "barrier" could also be lowered by a group-insurance option, or by requiring volunteers to sign a waiver that eliminates an agency's liability in case of injury.
But the liability problem, like every other element of running a volunteer program, "all comes down to a matter of money," Mr. Briscoe observed.
Mr. Watkins made clear that the yes Foundation would provide none of the funds that service agencies say they would need to run effective volunteer programs.
Frank Slobig, co-director of Youth Service America, a service-advocacy group that has headed a coalition of similar organizations and developed a series of policy recommendations on national service, described Mr. Watkins's statement as including several of the coalition's suggestions.
Even so, he said, "the whole issue still suffers from a lack of clarity, and there is a real uneasiness about what will be proposed."
Not an 'Umbrella'
Mr. Watkins and Mr. Petersmeyer also provided some insight into the relationship between the new foundation and existing federal agencies, in particular action.
Questions about the role of action come at a time when the Congress is Continued on Page 22
Action on National Service
Awaits Proposal From Bush
"The stakes areso high, if weget it wrong ...we will havedone somethingimmoral."--Gregg Petersmeyer Continued from Page 20
already working on legislation extending the agency's funding authority, which expires at the end of September.
In his testimony, Mr. Watkins seemed to describe an umbrella agency that would oversee existing volunteer programs, such as action, and many Congressional aides have described the plan in similar terms.
The energy secretary said that Mr. Bush does not want the foundation to be housed in action. He noted, however, that there had been some discussion in the White House about whether agencies such as action would be "corralled" under the foundation.
But Mr. Petersmeyer said last week that "there is not an attempt here to supersede or to oversee existing federal voluntary initiatives."
The President does not want his proposal to be linked with any specific department or agency, Mr. Petersmeyer explained, because he wants the "call to action" to be heard by all.
"If the President's initiative were housed in the Department of Education, or action, or the Department of Labor--any department separate from the President's own national, non-subject-specific approach--there would be large numbers of institutions that would not think the call to action applied to them," he predicted.
"Youth development must become the specific concern of every institution in America," he added. "Only the President can effectively make that call."
Mr. Petersmeyer also emphasized that his own role in the new program had not yet been determined.
In his budget proposal, President Bush said that he would chair a board of directors governing yes, and that Mr. Petersmeyer's office would "direct the work of the foundation."
But Mr. Petersmeyer said last week that the board had not yet been chosen, and "it was still being determined" whether he would have any operational authority over the initiative.
Capitol Hill Overlap?
Mr. Petersmeyer acknowledged that he and other White House officials had been meeting with Republican legislators about the President's initiative, but he declined to elaborate.
A Democratic aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee said panel members are hoping to form compromise legislation out of the various proposals that have been introduced.
But, the aide reported, talks on the compromise have been held up by "squabbles" about the role of action. Confusion about the President's initiative among Republicans on the committee also has delayed discussion on the legislation, the aide said.
One of those seeking more information on the initiative is Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, who is "a big supporter of action,'' according to an aide.
Mr. Hatch and other Republicans on the committee, the aide added, were waiting for further word from the White House because "they want to support the President."
Although mark-up of the action reauthorization bill was expected to be completed by House subcommittees this week, work on the legislation has been delayed in the Senate because the Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs, and Alcoholism, which has jurisdiction over the issue, has been tied up with legislation on child care.
'Uncomfortable Time for All'
Mr. Petersmeyer insisted last week that he was "not bothered" by criticism that his office was moving too slowly.
"This is a very complex issue," he said. "The era we're moving into, of substantially greater levels of community service, will be a very uncomfortable time for all."
"The President will ask and expect a great deal from young people and adults," he emphasized.
Most of his time so far has been spent talking about national service with as many different interest groups as possible, said Mr. Petersmeyer, a former executive with a Colorado oil firm.
Several youth-service advocates who have met with him described him as an "interested listener," who, as a newcomer to the field, is taking time to learn the players.
But others complained that his inexperience on the issue was holding up progress on the federal initiative.
Todd Clark, education director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles, a nonprofit agency that coordinates school-based service programs, attempted to quell such critics.
"If he turns out to be an inept administrator or a faulty policymaker, there's time enough to criticize him then," he said. "So far, I'm pleased with him. He's the only game we've got in the White House and I'm willing to support him any way I can."