Leahy at Peace Corps Crossroad is a “My Turn’ column in the Burlington Free Press written by Scott Skinner (Nepal 1964-66). Scott writes:
“Sen. Patrick Leahy has frequently provided courageous leadership in the Senate. But he is now faced with a major challenge, and it is not clear that he is going to step up to meet it.
“Sen. Leahy is the chairman of a key Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee that funds the Peace Corps. On Thursday, this subcommittee is scheduled to meet to allocate approximately $49 billion for a large variety of foreign projects. Funding for the Peace Corps is a tiny part of this sum. As chairman, Sen. Leahy can basically decide himself how much funding goes to the Peace Corps.
“The Obama administration had proposed a Peace Corps budget of $373 million, an amount that would effectively reduce the number of the Peace Corps volunteers despite the president’s campaign pledge to double it by 2011. A key subcommittee in the House, with bipartisan support, has already unanimously rejected that budget and has set aside $450 million, which would permit the Peace Corps to expand into countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.
“Sen. Leahy is no big fan of the Peace Corps. While chairman, his subcommittee has doled out paltry increases that have led to fewer volunteers being sent abroad. Most people do not realize that the number of Peace Corps volunteers serving abroad today is only half the total of 40 years ago. Interestingly, 36 senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have written to Leahy urging increased Peace Corps funding.
“Sen. Leahy has major complaints about the administration of the Peace Corps, and many of his concerns are valid. Peace Corps officials have irritated him by failing to answer his legitimate questions; too many volunteers are stationed on remote islands; an entrenched bureaucracy in Washington is top-heavy with political appointees.
“Leahy is correct that the Peace Corps needs major reform. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has introduced legislation that would help to reform and revitalize the Peace Corps. President Obama is expected to soon name a new director who can be expected to shake up the agency, as well.
“But 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.
“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.
“It is in our national interest to have a larger, more vigorous Peace Corps. And the need is there. 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 4,000 positions available.
“Vermont has a remarkable Peace Corps legacy, boasting the nation’s highest percentage of former Peace Corps volunteers per capita.
“Vermont has contributed over 1,300 volunteers, with 61 Vermonters currently serving. The University of Vermont is ranked 11th in the nation (for schools of its size) for the number of its alumni who have served.
“This is a critical time for the Peace Corps. Either it will grow and rejuvenate itself or it will wither away. The direction of the Peace Corps is almost entirely in Sen. Leahy’s hands. I am hoping the senator will become a champion of a renewed and revitalized Peace Corps. If he can accept this challenge, he will have once again earned the gratitude of all Vermonters.”
Scott Skinner, a lawyer in Montpelier, was a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Nepal from 1964 to 1966.