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July 07, 2009

Peace Out

We know the war economy can be good for a few Vermont businesses. So much for the ballyhooed "peace" dividend.

This week in D.C., peace will be on the budget menu when U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy convenes the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations that he chairs. The panel is an offshoot of the Appropriations Committee, on which Leahy is a senior member.

The committee is charged with parceling out $49 billion to everything from fighting AIDS to malaria, as well as funding diplomatic programs like the Peace Corps.

An increasingly vocal Peace Corps contingent is calling on Vermont's senior senator to beef up the organization they claim was decimated under the Bush administration. The group More Peace Corps has launched a national campaign.

Vermont has its own Peace Corps legacy, notes  Montpelier lawyer Scott Skinner, who has been helping his national counterparts lobby Leahy. In fact, Vermont boasts the nation’s highest percentage of former Peace Corps volunteers per capita.

Vermont has had more than 1300 volunteers with 61 Vermonters currently serving in the corps. The University of Vermont is ranked 11th in the nation (for schools of its size) for the number of its alumni who have served.

But during the Bush administration the Peace Corps languished (surprise, surprise), and today the number of Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad is only half the number it was 40 years ago.

To counter that decline, former volunteers, along with 36 senators, including Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) are urging Leahy to increase Peace Corps funding.

So far, Leahy's not taking them up on their pleas. Why? The Peace Corps under Bush was populated with political hacks. Officials ignored the senator's calls for reform and information, and they often stationed volunteers on remote islands at a cost of $50,000 apiece.

A top aide to Leahy, Tim Reiser, understands Corps supporters want to see change, and more money. But it may be hard to accommodate both.

"There are a lot of constituencies in this funding bill, and each one has its own cheerleaders," said Reiser, who has worked with Leahy on foreign funding measures since 1989.

The Peace Corps is a group worthy of more funding, but, Reiser notes, it has become one of the more mismanaged agencies in D.C. — the victim of political cronyism during the Bush presidency.

"It never reported to Congress," noted Reiser, "and has serious weaknesses as a program. It essentially hasn't evolved since it was created as an alternative to communism."

Finally, Pres. Barack Obama has yet to appoint a new Corps director, Reiser said, and without a director there is no plan to reform the agency — making it hard to justify a significant boost in spending.

That said, Reiser said Leahy is O.K. with adding $33 million to the Corps' budget, the largest increase in 15 years. That can be done without decimating other needed programs such as fighting malaria, providing earthquake disaster relief, and supporting women's rights.

Skinner agrees that the Peace Corps needs major reform. He notes that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) has introduced legislation that would reform and revitalize the program.  Pres. Obama is expected to soon name a new director whom advocates hope can shake things up.

"The Peace Corps needs both reform and increased funding if it is to regain its vibrancy. Energetic leaders are not going to want to preside over a shrinking agency," said Skinner. "Peace Corps volunteers have lifted American prestige around the world as millions of people in third-world countries have formed  their opinion of America from their contact with the Americans who lived in their villages and learned to speak their language. And all of this came at a low financial cost to the American taxpayer — one tenth of 1 percent of the military budget."

Skinner added that the need for volunteers exists. "Nearly 20 countries have asked the Peace Corps for volunteers. And the volunteer spirit is not lacking; last year 13,000 Americans applied for the 4000 positions available," he said.

Peace Corps backers were victorious in the House, where money committees boosted the group's funding to $450 million, well above the Obama administration's request of  $373 million.  This amount, according to Corps boosters, would allow the Peace Corps to grow and send new volunteers to some of the 19 countries that have requested them, including Indonesia.

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