Some Republicans Say Service Bill Does Not Target Aid to Neediest
WASHINGTON--The failure of President Clinton's national-service bill to set aside slots for low-income participants or to offer more money to the neediest students is causing some consternation among House Republicans.
Despite such criticism, Congress was expected last week to approve the proposal with relative ease.
At an Education and Labor Committee hearing last week on the "national service trust act,'' Reps. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., and Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said the only thing keeping them from supporting H.R. 2010 is that is does not contain a means test.
"My whole concern about the program is it has been sold as a way to make college more affordable,'' but is open to the needy and affluent alike, said Mr. Goodling, who is the committee's senior Republican.
Without a means test, the one-year post-service benefit of $5,000, which could be used for college tuition, skills training, or student-loan debt reduction, would not be targeted to low-income students who need the money the most, he said.
Mr. Goodling said he would prefer to keep participation in the program open to anyone who is willing, but provide a greater post-service benefit to students from low-income families.
Ms. Molinari, meanwhile, said that she would prefer to establish a wage scale that would pay lower-income participants more generously. Otherwise, she said, they might be unable to participate because they could not supplement their $4.25-per-hour income.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who represented the Administration at the hearing, conceded that the stipend was low, saying, "This isn't a living wage. It's time out for service.''
He said a program open to all could provide "an egalitarian experience that unites Americans from all walks of life.''
Mr. Babbitt generally sought to turn discussion of the program away from aid for college and toward service. The national service program, he said, "is a lot closer to the Peace Corps than it is to the Pell Grant.''
Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., who chairs the committee, said the panel will mark up the bill soon.
Mr. Ford urged his Republican colleagues to develop a means-test proposal for consideration.
Winning Republican support is considered critical by Administration officials, and they have already made some concessions in an effort to get them on board.
Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., a committee member and one of nearly 200 House co-sponsors of the measure, said the service bill contains several provisions that should appeal to Republicans: the availability of education or training aid for service; the decentralized administrative structure of the program; and a recent change that would authorize an unspecified funding level instead of the $7.4 billion included in the President's budget for the next five years.
"When we're talking about national service, we're doing a very Republican thing,'' Mr. Gunderson said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., another co-sponsor, also testified in favor of the measure. "I have found the White House extraordinarily willing to listen to criticism [and] to respond to it,'' he said.
Supporters of HR 2010 say it appears to be on a fast track, steadily gaining support.
"We're starting out with the wind at our backs,'' said Mr. Ford.
A Republican aide in the Senate said that despite several concerns raised by Republicans there, the bill appears destined for passage with little alteration.
"It looks like a freight train, it smells like a freight train, and if I'd lick it, it would probably taste like a freight train,'' the aide said.
Meanwhile, a group of higher-education organizations sought at last week's hearing to clarify their stance on national service.
Some higher-education officials, they said, have criticized the proposal in the context of Mr. Clinton's fiscal 1994 budget proposal for student financial aid, but are not necessarily opposed to the idea..
"It is not the President's national-service legislation, but the President's fiscal year 1994 budget request for student financial assistance that fails to pass muster,'' Peggy Gordon Elliott, the president of the University of Akron, said on behalf of 13 higher-education associations.
"We believe that national and community service should be seen as a
priority in its own right, and should not be funded at the expense of
need-based student aid,'' she said. "Thus we believe it is important to
emphasize that the national service trust act is not, and must not, be
seen as a student aid program.''