National Service is one of those good ideas that no one can oppose -- in principle. We certainly don't. Yet in today's world, it is an idea whose time has not come. The national government can't afford it. (Neither can state and local governments, which would be coerced into picking up part of the bill.) Given the huge, continuing federal deficit, a potentially expensive new program is a bad idea.
The new program would provide grants, primarily to youths, in return for two years of community service -- working as aides in hospitals, parks, police stations, etc., at about minimum wage, with benefits. The grants would be used to pay college tuition or for other educational purposes.
What we like about this program is that it touches a strain of idealism in the nation's youths, and introduces them to public problems they might not become aware of otherwise. Then it assists them with higher education. A fine combination.
But we are worried about how we will pay for all this. It is not an insignificant amount. The first phase is expected to cost $1.5 billion over three years. The bill's sponsors admit they regard it as a camel's nose under the tent (though they phrase it differently). The administration and the bill's chief sponsors in Congress originally sought $7.4 billion over four or five years. They had to cut back to get the votes to pass the bill, but if history is any guide, when the bureaucratic apparatus is in place, there will be pressure to increase spending.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., praised the program as one "that builds on lessons learned from VISTA, Peace Corps and other programs. It also builds on the Commission on National and Community Service." The Sun supported all of those, but now, as Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kans., said, before reluctantly voting against the proposal last week, there is some question as to whether the new money can be competently and efficiently spent. VISTA, for example, has an annual budget of only $35 million; the community service commission, only $77 million. Even the venerable Peace Corps gets just $212 million a year. Force-feeding an average of half a billion dollars a year into this system is bound to be wasteful.
Congress should re-think this when it comes time to appropriate funds for a National and Community Service program.