Senator Leahy and the Peace Corps

We Vermonters often have very little information about what our Senators and Congressman are actually doing in Washington. The Vermont press lacks Washington correspondents and our Congressional news is mostly generated by the legislators themselves.

Thus I was startled to learn on line that Senator Patrick Leahy, widely admired as one of the most progressive members of the U.S. Senate, is increasingly being viewed as a stubborn obstacle to a rejuvenated United States Peace Corps.

Senator Leahy is the powerful chairman of a Senate subcommittee that decides how much money goes to the Peace Corps, along with a host of other foreign programs. This coming Thursday, July 9, 2009, the Senator's subcommittee will meet to mark up the Peace Corps budget for the next fiscal year.

In the past, Leahy's subcommittee has authorized increases in the Peace Corps budget so modest that the net result has been a decline in the size of the Peace Corps. Few people realize that the number of Peace Corps Volunteers is only half of what it was forty years ago. Senator Leahy has valid concerns over how the Peace Corps has been administered, especially in the Bush years.

Too many Volunteers are serving on remote islands while vitally important countries like Indonesia, which have requested Volunteers, are turned away. The Peace Corps bureaucracy has failed to answer pertinent questions which the Senator and others have raised. As a consequence, it appears that Senator Leahy wants to withhold funding for the Peace Corps until it is reformed.

But much of Congress does not agree with his position. Thirty six Senators, including Democratic leader, Senator Harry Reid have written Leahy urging increased funding. For instance, a conservative Republican, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, has recently written in an article titled The Peace Corps is Smart Power:

"By supporting the important work of our Peace Corps volunteers, the American people are combating ... anti-American sentiment with actions and deeds. At no other time in our nation's history have the efforts of the Peace Corps been more necessary and relevant, which is why I am one of this agency of peace's strongest supporters and have called for the increase of volunteers around the globe, particularly in the Muslim nations of Southeast Asia." Senator Bond added, "Through initiatives like the Peace Corps, we can put sneakers and sandals on the ground, instead of military boots."

Leahy counterparts in the House of Representatives have endorsed an increase in the budget to $450 million. Given that the foreign operations budget is almost $50 billion, the money for the Peace Corps is a tiny fraction of the total. One former Peace Corps Director once joked that the budget for the Peace Corps is less than the budget for military bands.

This is the challenge for Senator Leahy: to step forward and lead his subcommittee in a bipartisan fashion to match the House Committee's recommendation. The reform that Senator Leahy seeks is also on its way. Senator Chris Dodd has introduced a comprehensive Peace Corps reform bill. And President Obama, who in his campaign pledged to double the size of the Peace Corps can be expected to name a Peace Corps director who will revitalize the agency.

But without adequate funding, the decision becomes how to shrink the agency, not how to expand and improve it. Reduced funding will effectively destroy the vision of an enlarged, reformed peace Corps for at least a year and perhaps forever. We can not afford the delay or the risk.

Senator Leahy has built a tremendous record as a defender of civil liberties, of good government, and of an independent judiciary. It is difficult to believe that he would want to diminish that sterling record by being known as the person who held back the Peace Corps at a critical juncture in its history.

Kevin Bubriski of Shaftsbury, Vermont was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal from 1975 to 1978.


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