Following in the steps of John F. Kennedy, who as a presidential candidate laid the groundwork for the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union, U.S. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) made the University their first stop in their campaign to promote a bill to expand volunteerism.
“Young Americans were particularly frustrated after 9-11 when they asked, ‘What can we do?’ and the answer was take a trip, go shopping, get on an airline,” McCain said during a town hall meeting April 9 at Hill Auditorium.
Bayh and McCain are sponsoring the Call to Service Act, which would quintuple the size of the AmeriCorps program to support 250,000 volunteers. AmeriCorps is a federally-funded program that offers tuition grants to people who perform community service. Half of the new positions would have to be associated with homeland security.
“We’d like to see (volunteerism) become a bigger part of the American social fabric,” Bayh said. “It’s important that we seize the moment and not let the enthusiasm for these programs dissipate.”
The senators have had several meetings to work out an agreement with President Bush, who has called for doubling the program.
“We’re going to do our best to avoid some fight with them because we share the same goals,” McCain said.
The University’s AmeriCorps program currently supports 52 volunteers participating in community service in Dearborn and Detroit, but they can do more, said Paul Propson, the program’s director.
“It has the advantage of being really selective, but it also has the disadvantage of not capitalizing on the enthusiasm for volunteerism,” he said. Propson told McCain and Bayh during the roundtable discussion that his program could support a doubling of itself by next year.
But the University also faces some difficulties in getting students involved, said Office of Financial Aid Director Pam Fowler.
“We can put hundreds of students in the America Reads program in Detroit, but they don’t have a way to get there,” she said.
Another aspect of the legislation would give an $18,000 tuition grant for serving 18 months of active duty in a branch of the armed forces followed by 18 months of service in the Reserves. The bill would also expand volunteer opportunities for senior citizens.
While McCain and Bayh had community service on their agenda, several students at the town hall meeting wanted answers to their questions on international affairs and military pay.
One student asked the senators what they felt the U.S. role in Iraq would and should be – the two agreed that the United States must take action.
“It’s not a question of whether, it’s a question of when,” Bayh said. “God forbid (Saddam Hussein) get hold of nuclear weapons. … It’s going to be a lot harder than Afghanistan.”
McCain received a round of applause for his work on the campaign finance reform bill that was passed by Congress and signed by the president earlier this month.
McCain responded by reminding the audience of the financial situation within the Beltway.
“There’s too much money washing around Washington that makes good people do bad things,” McCain said. “Congress continues to pork barrel funds while there are thousands of Americans on food stamps.”
During a press conference, Bayh acknowledged the detrimental effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on American society.
“The longer this conflict goes on, the more divided not just this campus, but this country will become,” he said. “We have to send an unequivocal message that you can’t reward terror.”
McCain said Israel has a responsibility to root out terror. He also blamed non-democratic governments in the Middle East for not rooting out terrorists, characterizing them “as the kind of leadership that countenances, encourages and rewards people who will take the lives of innocent people by blowing themselves up.”
The Department of Public Safety estimated that 1,000 people attended the forum, DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown said.