A billion here, a billion there

August 12, 1993

Commenting on the administration's National Service proposal last spring, we said that it "makes sense as a service program." We were concerned about how the president wanted to pay for it, and we thought it was false advertising to label it as an educational program. What the program will do is give students grants in return for their working for two years in community service jobs for near-minimum wage and benefits.

Now Congress has worked its magic on the idea. The original framework remains, but the program has been has reduced in scope, and the financing mechanism has been changed somewhat.

But the program is still flawed. One problem, pointed out by several speakers on the Hill, is that the only way to appropriate the called-for $1.5 billion over the next three years is to cut back on other, older programs in the educational field. The administrative costs alone will be the equivalent of an estimated 120,000 Pell Grants. These are education grants to students from low and middle-income families.

Paying the bureaucrats who will run the program may come out of those pots. And, since there is no means testing in the National Service proposal, in effect students who need tuition assistance (Pell grants) may lose out to students who do not (National Service).

National Service is not only a "feel good" idea, as its detractors say. It is also a "good" idea. But can it be justified now, when the deficits loom ahead as far as anyone can see, and when, as Congress has just said, spending restraint is absolutely essential?

Some advocates of the program justify it on the grounds that it involves only $1.5 billion over three years. But the administration considers this a signature program. President Clinton has stressed it in his campaign and since in John Kennedyesque rhetoric as his Peace Corps/G.I. Bill.

He originally sought $7.5 billion for it. Once the bureaucracy is in place and the law on the books, you can be sure there will be an effort to increase the funding.

Even if not, $1.5 billion in the present budget environment is not peanuts. A former Senate minority leader, Everett Dirksen, once said, "You spend a billion here and a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money." A billion dollars isn't what it used to be, because federal lawmakers ignored Senator Dirksen's point. That is why now more than ever the president and Congress need to restrain themselves.

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