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Advocates Mobilize To Make Case To Save Service Program

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Washington

As the House debated a budget plan last week that calls for eliminating the Clinton Administration's community-service program, supporters were trying to convince a subcommittee that the federal effort is worth saving.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations--a former Peace Corps volunteer who supports the program--said he convened the hearing to give its directors a chance to prove its worth.

"With the possible exception of a handful of our most ideological critics, everyone agrees that we've done what we were asked to do," said Eli J. Segal, the chief operating officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The corporation runs several service programs, including AmeriCorps, which President Clinton hailed as a "domestic Peace Corps" when he launched it in 1993. Under the program, young people can earn college aid and minimum-wage stipends in exchange for community-service work.

Mr. Segal said 20,000 "well-trained, motivated" AmeriCorps members are now serving more than 1,000 communities.

But a panel of critics questioned the cost, effectiveness, and need for the federal service program.

Issues of Cost, Ideology

Allyson M. Tucker, who was the manager of the Center for Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation until last week, argued that the appropriation was a waste of resources.

A House-Senate conference committee apparently agreed. Its rescissions bill--which the House approved last week--would slice $210 million from the $575 million appropriated for the service corporation in the current fiscal year. Mr. Clinton said he would veto the measure. (See related story.)

Ms. Tucker charged that "half of the money spent on AmeriCorps ends up funding bureaucracies," an assertion Mr. Segal disputed.

Each state has a service commission that monitors any financial improprieties, he said. "If there was a problem, we'd fix it."

Ms. Tucker also contended that the corporation's service contracts often go to organizations that are ideologically liberal. She described one participating group, a nonprofit housing-advocacy organization, as a "radical left-wing group."

That comment angered Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who asked, "So you think we should award grants based on political affiliation?"

John P. Walters, another panelist critical of the program, continued on that theme when he suggested that AmeriCorps members are inappropriately used as a backdrop for partisan political events.

Mr. Walters, the president of the Washington-based New Citizenship Project, a public policy organization, pointed to a recent Earth Day event in which President Clinton honored AmeriCorps volunteers.

"I am not asserting fraud, but it's inappropriate to use people in jobs paid for by taxpayers in a politically partisan event," he said.

But Rep. Gene Green, D-Tex., suggested that Mr. Walters had been involved in staging such events with federal-grant recipients when he was an assistant to William J. Bennett. Mr. Walters worked for Mr.(See Education and later the federal "drug czar."

Mr. Green also disputed Mr. Walters's argument against the idea of providing financial compensation for doing good works.

"It's almost like saying every preacher in the country should be there for free," Representative Green said.

The hearing concluded with the testimony of an AmeriCorps participant, Philip E. Wu Jr., who supervises building construction for the nonprofit housing group Habitat for Humanity.

"It's changing my life," said Mr. Wu, a 30-year-old who wants to use his award to finish his college education. "And AmeriCorps is changing hundreds of families' lives who we build houses for. Obviously there's something right about it."

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