'Mandatory volunteerism'? Not in this bill

The "Conservative Bombshell" offers her thoughts on a bill that seeks to expand volunteerism, but which she warns could lead to mandatory service.

The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, passed by Congress on March 31, 2009, is a nearly $6 billion program designed to boost volunteerism. It seeks to triple the size of AmeriCorps and is designed to help nonprofit organizations recruit and manage more volunteers.

But in some conservative circles, there has been rampant speculation that the bill has more sinister motives, namely that it would lead to mandatory volunteerism.

It's a charge that has made the rounds in the blogosphere, and was fueled in part by conservative voices like columnist Michelle Malkin and radio and TV personality Glenn Beck. Our favorite, though, comes via a YouTube video from the so-called "Conservative Bombshell," Hollywood actress and political activist Sharise Parviz.

Sporting overalls and holding a shovel, Parviz opens with a few lines from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot before ripping into the bill as a throwback to slavery.

"You see, President Obama wants to pass something that's called the GIVE Act, or what most people are calling Mandatory Volunteerism," Parviz says. "Yeah, it sounds a bit oxymoronic to me too.

"You see when you volunteer, it means you are choosing to share of yourself freely. But when the volunteering is made mandatory, well, it ain't volunteering anymore. ... No, what this mandatory volunteerism really is, it's forced labor. ... You know, this isn't the first time that we faced forced labor in this country. You may have heard about it in your history books in school.

"I don't know about you, maybe you think it's a good idea for your young ones to be forced to, well, paint that fence, or plant that tree, or dig that ditch ... or pick that cotton."

We have no idea how well known the Conservative Bombshell is, but the video had been viewed nearly 22,000 times as of March 31.

The bill was originally known by the unwieldy name the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act. Parviz and others are referring to a line in the version of the bill that came out of the House Education and Labor Committee.

A section of the bill talks about creating a Congressional Commission on Civic Service that would have many items to explore, including "whether a workable, fair and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all young people could be developed, and how such a requirement could be implemented in a manner that would strengthen the social fabric of the nation and overcome civic challenges by bringing together people from diverse economic, ethnic and educational backgrounds."

This is where critics began leaping to conclusions, suggesting that the bill mandated such a requirement.

"The idea that government should order its people to perform acts of charity is contrary to the idea of charity and it removes the responsibility for charity from the people to the government, destroying private initiative," Luke Sheahan, contributing editor for the Family Security Foundation, told Fox News.

But that's a distortion of the provision, said Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Miller, chair of the Labor and Education Committee. The commission would have looked into all sorts of things to encourage, streamline and remove barriers to volunteerism, and that one idea was to look into the feasibility of mandatory service requirements for youths. The legislation would not have authorized the commission's findings to be binding, she said, and would have required separate legislative action to move it forward.

But the point is moot. That requirement was taken out of the bill before it was voted on by the full House. And it was never in the version voted on by the Senate. It is not in the version awaiting the president's signature (which he vows to provide upon his return from a NATO summit in Europe).

"There's nothing in this legislation that would commit anyone to any sort of mandatory service," Racusen said. "It's simply not true. That continues to be falsely disseminated. There is no mandatory service component."

We should note that Parviz, Malkin, and Beck all acknowledged that it has since been taken out of the bill, though they warned it could be added in the future.

Nor is that the end of the story. Some on the Internet have speculated that the provision has re-emerged via a separate piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott. McDermott's bill calls for the creation of a Commission on Civil Service and uses similar verbiage about looking into the topic of whether "a workable, fair and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed."

But according to a spokesman for Rep. McDermott, the bill was proposed before leaders in the White House, Senate and House came to an agreement on the bill's particulars, sans the "mandatory" language. McDermott will not move forward with his legislation, the spokesman said.

Bottom line, yes, there was once a provision in the Edward M. Kennedy Service America Act bill that would have created a bipartisan commission that would have, among many other things, looked into to the feasibility of mandatory community service for youths. But the bill would not have mandated  such a requirement. And it was taken out. So, case closed.