President Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps—a federally funded network of paid "volunteers"—was once a favorite punching bag for conservatives, with the Heritage Foundation, among other right-wing forces, denouncing it as a $575 million boondoggle. Yet President George W. Bush has pledged to "expand and improve the good efforts of AmeriCorps [and] recruit more than 200,000 new volunteers." A few limited-government types expressed outrage, but, as the left-wing American Prospect gleefully noted, many Republicans have suddenly embraced AmeriCorps. James Bovard, who documented the program's follies in Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years (2000), remains a critic. Reason National Correspondent Mike Lynch spoke with Bovard in March.
Q: What are the good works of AmeriCorps?
A: I saw an AmeriCorps program paying people to go door-to-door to sign people up for food stamps. I've talked to people who were very proud of using AmeriCorps to put on puppet shows. Other AmeriCorps programs have busied themselves trying to sign up people for welfare of one type or another. It's a very soft program. The folks who run it have chosen not to do evaluations on what it actually achieves. Instead they are simply counting raw numbers of activities, a Soviet bloc type of measurement. The program is incorrigible; once a boondoggle, always a boondoggle.
Q: Why would the Bush administration want to expand it?
A: Temporary insanity. For Clinton, AmeriCorps was largely a photo opportunity. AmeriCorps volunteers were famous for being herded out to a tarmac when President Clinton was flying into someplace so there would be a cheering crowd. Bush is likewise bringing a photo op mentality to AmeriCorps. This is something that makes it easier for politicians to brag about all the good deeds that they paid to have done. But it isn't their money that paid to have them done, and many of them aren't even good deeds.
Q: How are AmeriCorps' critics taking Bush's plan?
A: How many critics are left? Almost all the criticisms on Capitol Hill have stopped. This will be a key part of Bush's legacy. As with Clinton, it's his attempt to put a smiley face on the federal government. But as with Clinton, it is going to blow up in his face.
Q: Why will it blow up in his face?
A: I'll put it in mathematical terms: As the program expands arithmetically, the number of boondoggles will increase geometrically.
Q: What does this say about the permanence of any government program?
A: The fact that the Bush administration has wrapped its arms around AmeriCorps is a symbol of its apparent total lack of will in facing the failure of federal programs.