If the politics of national service is a thorny subject for congressional Republicans - scrutinizing programs long embraced by Democrats but preserving programs seen as both patriotic and worth the money - financing it, or, in the words of White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, asking “a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit” to keep paying for it, is even thornier.
In the era of skinny budgets, it’s easy for congressional appropriators to lump national service programs in with longtime conservative targets for elimination. In a time of belt-tightening, it would be easy to think of them merely as an outgrowth of big government.
But the easy approach isn’t always the right one - in fact, it often isn’t. That’s why I urge my Republican colleagues to consider carefully before swinging the budget ax toward national service programs, as President Donald Trump has proposed. These programs are crucial when it comes to disaster response. Having governed Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in our nation’s history, I know all too well.
The spending blueprint offered last month by the White House slashes funding for, among other things, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that administers the AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps connects some 80,000 Americans annually with community and faith-based organizations to solve educational, public health, environmental and homeland security issues.
Now, that doesn’t sound like wasted government spending to me. And I don’t know about a West Virginia coal miner, but I know what the hard-working taxpayers of Mississippi think about AmeriCorps, whose volunteers played an outsized and critical role in the immediate- and long-term recovery from Katrina.
Sure, 12 years later, it’s easy to take a detached, clinical view of the Katrina response and decide what worked, what didn’t and what to cut. But sorting all that out wasn’t so simple in the chaotic hours and days that followed the storm, when hundreds of thousands of Americans were displaced and in dire need of resources.
What was immediately apparent despite the chaos was the integral role being played by AmeriCorps members, around 40,000 in total, who trained and coordinated hundreds of thousands of faith-based and community volunteers who rapidly fanned out across our state to aid, and in many instances direct, recovery efforts.
These young men and women were the glue that bound together our entire volunteer operation. They ran our shelters and feeding centers, our donation warehouses and emergency call centers. They built or repaired more than 15,000 homes, completed thousands of damage assessments and supported emergency response centers throughout the Gulf Coast region. Crucially, they provided training that enabled volunteers to effectively clean up communities in the wake of the most expensive storm in American history.
Because congressional appropriators and presidents in the past didn’t exercise the easy option, the very same option being asked of Congress today, the work of AmeriCorps in the Gulf South was possible. The Commission on National and Community Service was originally enacted when Republican President George H.W. Bush signed the 1990 National and Community Service Act. In his first presidential acceptance speech, and again in his first inaugural address, Bush spoke of “a thousand points of light” glimmering across our nation, each light a shimmering demonstration of the power of taking part and pitching in. The Corporation for National and Community Service lets those lights shine brighter. Republicans can’t be the party that snuffs them out.
Today, President Trump and Congress are right to seriously address, for the first time in years, the crisis of the federal government’s budget bloat. But funding for national service programs, a tiny fraction of the massive federal budget, isn’t the place to start.
I hope America never endures another storm as devastating as Hurricane Katrina. Should we, though, I pray AmeriCorps members will be there. It’s up to Congress and the new administration to see they are.
Haley Barbour is a founding partner of the BGR Group. He is a former governor of Mississippi and a former chairman of the Republican Governors Association and of the Republican National Committee.