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Public Statements

Vote Explanation

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

VOTE EXPLANATION -- (Senate - March 26, 2009)


Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, today the Senate has taken a significant step toward engaging many more Americans in national and community service. Imagine how much stronger America will be if millions more people of all ages answer this legislation's--and our President's--call to serve.

The challenges facing the Nation are among the most serious in our history. Our families, our businesses, and our communities are suffering from unparalleled economic challenges. Jobs are disappearing. Homes are being foreclosed. Debts are soaring. Our health care system is in crisis. Our schools are in trouble. State and local budgets are being forced to make severe cutbacks.

Each of these challenges is daunting, but all of them can be met more effectively if we devote ourselves to the task together. We must overcome the illusion that America's problems are the responsibilities of others to solve.

Fortunately, there are signs of hope. The excitement generated on both sides of the aisle by last year's Presidential campaign showed that Americans young and old want to be more involved in the world in which they live. President Obama's call to service has inspired new interest in doing so. And if there is any silver lining to the economic crisis, it is the fact that the crisis, for all its harsh effects, has also strengthened Americans' desire to do their part.

The greed and selfishness displayed on Wall Street in recent weeks is not America. This desire to help is America.

Applications to City Year are up 180 percent. Teach for America received 35,000 applications for just 4,000 positions. Online AmeriCorps applications--which don't represent all AmeriCorps applications--are three to four times what they were last year.

As they always do, the American people are stepping up just when we need them most, and this legislation will help them do even more.

For the past year, there has been little to agree on in Washington. Last year's political campaigns led to partisan bickering in Congress and beyond. But throughout the year, Senator Hatch felt it was essential to work on this legislation. We heard from Americans old and young. We received ideas from across the ideological spectrum. It wasn't easy, but we were able to reach agreement on the need to make room for more full-time volunteers to give a year of service, and to help small organizations use more part-time volunteers who are the lifeblood of the service army.

I know some of my colleagues are concerned about any increase in spending because of the growing budget deficits. But at a time when all our communities are struggling, this bill is a responsible investment that will pay itself back many times over--in service, in volunteer hours, in private and local investments. The cornerstone of our success as a Nation has always been the drive of the American people. Their ingenuity in mastering any challenge; their compassion for those around them; their strength to see us through the hard times. This bill relies on all of these qualities.

The Serve America Act is fundamentally about strengthening our future, but it draws on lessons from the past. In the past two decades, we have learned a great deal about the power of service. We have learned that it can make a dramatic difference in meeting complex challenges--from improving our schools to conserving our precious natural resources. We have learned that it contributes both to the communities in which individuals serve and to the individuals themselves. We have learned that even skilled professionals with established careers and retiring senior citizens with a lifetime of experience are eager to dedicate their skills to giving back to others. They are more than willing to take their skills and their experience and turn them into something useful for our country.

Most of all, we have learned that Americans want to serve and that all we have to do is ask.

Our bill draws on these lessons to establish the next generation of service. It increases the number of AmeriCorps members from the current level of 75,000 to 250,000 over the next 8 years. We know the demand exists among participants and organizations, and we need to make this investment to increase the supply of opportunities. The bill will also focus existing AmeriCorps programs on areas which its members are best equipped to handle, so we can measure the impact these members are having.

An Education Corps will serve disadvantaged youth through tutoring, mentoring, and connecting schools and parents. A Clean Energy Corps will weatherize homes to increase energy efficiency, teach the Nation's youth about energy use, and serve in our national parks. A Healthy Futures Corps will give low-income Americans greater access to health care and improve their health literacy.

As the cost of college has skyrocketed, the Eli Segal Educational Award has remained stagnant for 16 years, at $4,725. Our bill will finally change that by increasing the award to the same as the maximum Pell grant, $5,350, and link it to that grant in the future to ensure that it never becomes stagnant again.

For younger Americans, the legislation expands the existing Learn and Serve program, which supports service-learning activities for students that place them on a path to a lifetime of service. Learn and Serve was one of the most important experiments we have undertaken in service in the past, and it is still an important investment. Last year, 1.1 million students served through Learn and Serve. This legislation will do more, creating Summer of Service positions for middle and high school students, in return for an education award that will remind them of their own ability to go to college. It will also create Youth Engagement Zones to bring more service-learning to low-income communities with high dropout rates, so that more students will stay in school.

As we focus on the very young through Learn and Serve, and on our youth through AmeriCorps, the next generation of service must do more for adults as well. The largest generation in American history--the baby boom generation--is retiring, with the energy and desire to do more for their communities and more for the Nation. This legislation will draw on that desire and on their skills and experience, and direct them to the nonprofit sector through Encore Fellowships to help them make the transition into long term public service.

Further, since the AmeriCorps education award is not a realistic incentive for adults who have completed their education, the bill makes the award transferable to a child or a grandchild. With the cost of college rising, and the award finally increasing, this provision will make a major difference to these families.

In addition, the bill expands and updates the three existing Senior Corps programs--RSVP, Senior Companions, and Foster Grandparents. These programs have been successful for decades, and will continue to be the backbone for service by persons who are 55 or older.

The bill also creates a social innovation fund, to invest in outcome-focused, effective nonprofit organizations. We should never underestimate the power of a committed young person with a good idea. Social entrepreneurs like those who started City Year, Citizen Schools, and YouthBuild are doing remarkable work, and we should help them expand. It is our role to do so.

To help organizations manage the influx of new volunteers and provide a better experience for occasional volunteers, the legislation creates a Volunteer Generation Fund to improve volunteer management and increase capacity in organizations that rely on volunteers.

Finally, the bill authorizes and focuses the Volunteers for Prosperity program created under President Bush in 2003. For decades, the Peace Corps has been demonstrating the potential of international volunteering for solving practical problems and developing the human ties that are the building blocks of diplomacy. Volunteers for Prosperity offers opportunities for skilled professionals to engage in short-term international service in developing countries to address specific areas of need, from clean water to girls' education.

Much of this bill--and much of what we know about service more broadly--draws on the lessons we have learned from leaders in Massachusetts. City Year began in Boston. Its volunteers show us that they can focus on a specific problem, such as the dropout rate in our schools, and make a real difference.

Last year, almost 2,200 AmeriCorps members served in Massachusetts, in schools, communities, and health centers. This legislation will triple their numbers. It will also support the work of the Massachusetts Service Alliance, which has been an effective leader in coordinating service opportunities across our State.

Service is a cause with champions too numerous to count in Congress and beyond. Invoking the power of service isn't a partisan issue. It is a way to help our country in the current crisis. Leaders on both sides of the aisle agree that part of solving our greatest challenges is to rely on the strength, ingenuity, and compassion of our people to serve their fellow Americans. Nineteen years ago, the original National and Community Service Act was a bipartisan bill, and so is this one.

I commend all of those who have worked on this legislation. We all owe our colleague Senator Mikulski immense gratitude for steering this bill across the finish line.

Senator Enzi, as always, has been an amazing partner. His input made the bill stronger, and it made the Corporation for National and Community Service stronger as well, and better able to carry out the new responsibilities we are placing on it.

We also owe an immense debt to Senator Hatch, whose idea this legislation was. I know when we work together, our friends on both sides of the aisle get suspicious, but as always, we came up with a bipartisan product the Senate can be proud of, and we made it stronger by working through our disagreements.

I particularly commend President Obama as well. From his own experiences over the years, he knows the power of service both to the individual and to the community. He has made clear that his own path in life has been shaped by his early service, and for that we can all be grateful.

There are also many staff members who made this legislation possible. Senator Hatch's staff--Chris Campbell, Bryan Hickman, and Jace Johnson--has been invaluable. On Senator Enzi's staff, I particularly thank Beth Buehlmann, Adam Briddell, and Frank Macchiarola. On Senator Mikulski's staff, Julia Frifield, Ben Gruenbaum, and Mario Cardona have worked hard to bring this legislation to the Senate and get it through.

I also thank Senate Legislative Counsel Liz King, Kristin Romero, and Amy Gaynor, and for his technical assistance, the Corporation's General Counsel, Frank Trinity.

Finally, I thank the members of my staff who worked so long and hard and well on this legislation--Sarah Whitton, Thomas Showalter, Brian Carter, Christine Leonard, Charlotte Burrows, Janice Kaguyutan, Melissa Wagoner, Jay McCarthy, Portia Wu and Michael Myers. Most of all, I thank Emma Vadehra, my senior education counsel, who has worked skillfully and tirelessly on this bill since the beginning. Her leadership was indispensable in bringing us to this successful conclusion.

Now the real work begins: to implement this new vision of service and make it as effective as it can be in the years ahead.

It has been 16 long years since Congress last looked fully at these programs. More and more of us believe that the time has come to do much more. And now we will. President Kennedy's call to service still echoes today, and I am proud we have renewed that call for our day and generation by passing this important legislation.


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