During the 2008 election, President Obama pledged  to double the Peace Corps from 7,800 volunteers to 16,000 by its 50th anniversary in 2011. He first made the promise to students at Cornell College in Iowa, on Dec. 5, 2007, saying, “We will double the size of the Peace Corps by its 50th anniversary in 2011.” Eight months later, on July 2, 2008 at the University of Colorado, he repeated the promise: ”We’ll also grow our Foreign Service, open consulates that have been shuttered, and double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011 to renew our diplomacy.” Three months later, he reiterated this promise for the third time during the second Presidential debate on October 7, 2008 (which was watched by over 50 million people): “And the last point I just want to make. I think the young people of America are especially interested in how they can serve, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in doubling the Peace Corps, making sure that we are creating a volunteer corps all across this country.”

President Obama has completely broken the promise (as the Pulitzer-Prize winning website, Politifactrecently reported), and there is no remorse about it at the White House.  Even if we pass the $46 million increase proposed by the administration for 2011, the agency will have fewer than 10,000 volunteers worldwide by the end of 2011 (6,000 volunteers and $300 million short of what he said he would give to PC).

In the last year, I’ve spoken to senior White House advisors and other top-level staff members at OMB to understand what happened.  One senior OMB official actually said to me, “Just because it was said during the campaign does not mean it’s going to be fulfilled.” When I asked why such a relatively small funding pledge (it would cost about $300 million to double, a speck of dust in the federal budget) would not be fulfilled, the same OMB official vaguely referred to the economic crisis and mentioned Peace Corps not being in “strategically significant countries.”  When I countered that Peace Corps had opened in Sierra Leone, Colombia and Indonesia, three important countries, and expanded in Morocco, Ukraine, Botswana, China and other countries, they questioned whether Peace Corps could handle the funds.  When I mentioned the President’s Peace Corps Director, Aaron Williams, had managed a billion-dollar budget when he directed USAID in South Africa and that he had already fielded an additional 1,000 volunteers in less than a year and formed partnerships with NGOs like CHF International which will help field volunteers, they gave other excuses about Peace Corps being in Bulgaria and Romania,  and asked why we had volunteers in EU countries.  When I countered that the volunteers there were working with some of the world’s most vulnerable populations (such as the Roma) and furthering the Peace Corps’ 3 goals, they questioned the goals.

And that’s what it has been from the White House and OMB, when it comes to the Peace Corps: excuses and deflections.

In the fiscal year 2011 budget, OMB even falsely implies that the promise is somehow being kept, boasting about providing “$446 million to fund the second year of the President’s initiative to significantly increase the number of Peace Corps volunteers, keeping the Peace Corps on track to grow by 50 percent so it reaches 11,000 volunteers by 2016.”

It is misleading for OMB to imply that the promise was “11,000 by 2016,” when millions of Americans watched the President’s speeches clearly promising 16,000 by 2011.  Peace Corps is not on track and the President’s initiative was to double.  It’s almost as if they switched “11″ in “2011″ with “16″ and the “16″ in “16,000″ with “11″ and thought no one would notice.

For once, Congress is not the problem.  Thanks to a massive grassroots movement by RPCVs, nearly 200 House and Senate Members have co-sponsored legislation and co-signed Dear Colleague letters this year urging the appropriations committees to provide the funding needed to double the Peace Corps over the next few years.  And it’s not House Democrats or Senate Republicans; some of the most conservative Republican Senators like Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri are championing major expansion.   If anyone is to blame it’s the President for not fulfilling the promise and the Democratic Senators that continue to cut the high numbers proposed by Congressman Sam Farr (Colombia 64-66), which Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey (NY-18) has consistently supported.
Now, it is believed the White House is planning to request a small, token increase for 2012. We can not let that happen.  With the 50th anniversary months away, now is the time to reinvigorate Peace Corps, which is half the size it was in 1966, despite many new nations requesting volunteers today and record numbers of applicants of all ages.  The President has to lead in the struggle to pass at least the $446 million which the administration has requested from Congress for 2011 so we can support 10,000 volunteers.   But most importantly, President Obama needs to reinstate his promise with a historic funding increase in FY 2012 and a plan for growing Peace Corps to 16,000 volunteers.  Not once since being elected has he referred to doubling the Peace Corps.  The President is soon expected to deliver a major speech in Indonesia, where Peace Corps opened after a 45-year absence.  It would take so little for the President to restate his campaign promise during that important speech.
Therefore, starting today, Push for Peace Corps, which is an independent grassroots campaign with 33,000 RPCV and other supporters, is urging RPCVs to submit the following question to President Obama online (http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact):

“President Obama, are you still committed to keeping your campaign promise to double the Peace Corps to 16,000 volunteers, and will you help us pass the $46 million increase in funding for the 50th anniversary in 2011 which the Senate is threatening to cut?”

Please write the President with the question and let me know by sending an e-mail to rajeev@pushforpeacecorps.org with “I Asked President Obama the Question” in the title.