House To Vote On National Service Measure

President Obama has said he wants to spark a new movement of volunteerism. Legislation encouraging a renewed spirit of national service goes before the House Wednesday. The bill would triple the size of AmeriCorps and create four other service programs. Critics say there are ways to promote volunteerism without spending money.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One thing President Obama wants to do in this economic crisis is to use it to spark a new movement of volunteerism across the country. Here's what he said in his first speech before a joint session of Congress.

President BARACK OBAMA: And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I asked Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch, as well as an America who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country, Senator Edward Kennedy.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: That legislation comes before the House of Representatives today. It's called the Give Act. NPR'S Andrea Seabrook has this preview.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The Give Act would more than triple the number of slots in programs like AmeriCorps from 75,000 now to 250,000, and it would create four new service corps: the Clean Energy Corps, the Education Corps, the Healthy Futures Corps, and the Veteran Service Corps. Democrat George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, helped write this bill.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Education and Labor Committee): This is something that I think the American people feel very strongly about. They recognize in these economic times more people are going to need assistance. And we're going to have to also provide additional jobs, and this bill also does that for a number of people across the country.

SEABROOK: The legislation also boosts the amount of money a volunteer gets towards full-time education, and it gives new incentives to middle school and high school students to do service work. It's a very popular bill among both parties. But that's not to say it doesn't have its critics, like South Carolina's Joe Wilson. He's all for volunteering, but…

Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): It's a money question. It's half a billion dollars. And to me, we can promote volunteerism without spending money.

SEABROOK: AmeriCorps pays a small stipend in addition to the education benefits. But Miller says about $12,000 a volunteer is cheap for what they're getting.

Rep. MILLER: This pays back so much to our communities. This really is about the American community.

SEABROOK: Miller says whether it's rebuilding after floods or hurricanes, teaching in struggling schools, or helping homeowners make improvements to save energy, he hopes this bill will forge a new generation of volunteers to fan out across the country.

(Soundbite of saw)

SEABROOK: Down on the National Mall, just off the Capitol grounds, dozens of young volunteers in hard hats and t-shirts are crawling over the framework of a house. This is Youth Build AmeriCorps, a project that constructs prefab energy efficient houses for low-income neighborhoods. In return for their time, they'll get money to spend on school or expenses like books, or even a down payment on a low-income house. But that's not why they do it, says Justin Roebuck, Sr.(ph), a 22-year-old from Columbus, Ohio.

Mr. JUSTIN ROEBUCK, Sr. (Volunteer, Youth Build AmeriCorps): Volunteering is not about the money. You know, you're dedicating your time to a purpose.

SEABROOK: And it has these kids fired up. First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to these volunteers. And 19-year-old Anna Bravo(ph) of Austin, Texas says she loves the administration's focus on service.

Ms. ANNA BRAVO (Volunteer, Youth Build AmeriCorps): I can see that they are making change. I mean, just coming here and talking to us, you know, that shows a lot. They're making it happen.

SEABROOK: Today's bill may be the first piece of the president's agenda that gets broad bipartisan support in Congress.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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