Obama to Sign $6 Billion National Service Boondoggle; Mandatory Service Mulled

President Obama will sign into law a $6 billion “national service” boondoggle. In the March 31 Washington Examiner, I described how the “Americorps plan will waste money on ideological causes” like rent control and more lenient sentences for violent criminals:

“Despite exploding deficits, President Obama and congressional leaders are backing a $5.7 billion “national service” boondoggle. Obama’s proposed budgets, which break his campaign promise of ‘a net spending cut,’ will already increase the national debt by $9.3 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), making even the Bush administration look thrifty by comparison. Where will the new money come from? The CBO says Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package will actually shrink the economy ‘in the long run.’ Much of the ‘national service’ funds will be wasted on ideological causes. In the past, they were used to pay young people to lobby for rent control and against anti-crime legislation, such as ‘three-strikes’ laws.”

This $6 billion may be just the beginning. In 2008, Obama promised “a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded” as our military.

Soon after the election, Obama’s web site announced plans to require students to perform unpaid community service every year. “Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year,” announced Obama’s change.gov web page. Community organizers would no doubt welcome all the unpaid labor this makes available to them.

It is unclear if any federal power authorizes such a requirement: the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Lopez (1995), which struck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act as unconstitutional, made clear that private citizens and education are not inherently commercial enterprises subject to federal regulation under the Commerce Clause. (That decision was reaffirmed in United States v. Morrison (2000), which dismissed a federal lawsuit alleging violence between college students, as beyond federal jurisdiction).

My guess is that Obama will try to get around those decisions by conditioning federal grants to school districts on their mandating unpaid service by students. (The Supreme Court hasn’t struck down a spending-condition since United States v. Butler (1936)). Prior to the election, Obama supporters also spoke of sweetening the pot for college students (but not other students) by giving them a tax-credit in exchange for the community service.

The Obama Administration has temporarily put these plans for mandatory service on the back-burner.

Legal commentator Walter Olson of Overlawyered writes that after he publicized the Obama community-service requirement, and his post “began drawing thousands of visitors, the Obama website administrators at change.gov silently replaced the ‘require’ language with something new and different: ‘Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free.'”