By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008
The Peace Corps, the popular service program that President Bush once promised to double in size, is preparing to cut back on new volunteers and consolidate recruiting offices as it pares other costs amid an increasingly tight budget, according to agency officials.
The program, which has a budget of $330.8 million, is facing an anticipated shortfall of about $18 million this fiscal year and next, officials say. Much of the gap can be attributed to the declining value of the dollar overseas and the rising cost of energy and other commodities, officials said. That inflates expenses for overseas leases, volunteer living costs and salaries for staff abroad, most of whom are paid in local currencies.
Those factors "have materially reduced our available resources and spending power," Peace Corps Director Ronald A. Tschetter wrote in a July 22 letter to Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the program. "Tough budgetary decisions must be made now in order to ensure a financially healthy agency next fiscal year," he added.
The agency estimates its foreign- currency-related losses at $9.2 million for fiscal 2008 alone, spokeswoman Amanda Beck said yesterday.
In part, the program is caught in the political standoff between lawmakers and the president over the federal budget. If, as seems likely, Democrats delay final passage of the spending bills that fund the government until after Bush leaves office next year, programs such as the Peace Corps could be forced to operate at current funding levels indefinitely, administration officials said.
Beck said the agency could experience another $9 million in losses in fiscal 2009 in a "worst-case scenario" in which the agency has to operate under a year-long continuing resolution.
But that scenario is very unlikely, McCollum said yesterday, noting that her subcommittee has signed off on the agency's $343.5 million budget request and its Senate counterpart has approved $337 million.
"It's only going to be a short amount of time before a new budget gets through, and the Congress is committed to moving Peace Corps in an upward direction," she said, adding that the agency should ask for short-term supplemental funding if it needs it.
Beck said the "best course of action" would be for Congress to approve the president's full budget request.
In a July 21 letter to Tschetter, McCollum wrote that she had "serious doubts" about the agency's plan to close regional recruiting offices in Minneapolis and Denver by Jan. 1.
"It is my goal to see a growing number of highly qualified, diverse and determined Americans of all ages committing themselves to serve our country as Peace Corps volunteers," she wrote. "Achieving this goal will require . . . a strong nationwide recruiting presence."
Tschetter described the closures as "mergers" with other offices in Chicago and Dallas that are part of a move toward a "field-based recruiting model" expected to save $1.5 million. Thirteen people will be reassigned to other jobs in the agency, officials said.
The tight fiscal climate also means an anticipated scaling back in new volunteers next year by 400, wiping out planned growth and leaving the overall number of volunteers at about 8,000, according to Tschetter. Volunteers serve for 27 months and are paid a stipend of about $2,500 annually.
Managers at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington have been asked to cut their budgets by 15.5 percent. The agency even plans to stop providing copies of Newsweek magazine to volunteers in the field, something it has done since the 1980s. (Newsweek is owned by The Washington Post Co., parent company of The Washington Post.)
"It just seemed like an extravagance," Beck said. "Everything is under consideration, including the director's travel."
Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit group of former volunteers, said, "I worry about what the [budgetary] implications are for the next president, who we anticipate will have plans to expand Peace Corps."
Established in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps provides skilled volunteers to other countries while promoting mutual understanding between Americans and people of other nations. About 190,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries since its inception.
The 8,079 volunteers today number the most in 37 years but are far fewer than the goal of 14,000 by fiscal 2007 that Bush set in his 2002 State of the Union speech.
Expanding the program remains a popular idea.
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged to double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), his Republican counterpart, has praised national service and said there should have been a stronger national push to encourage people to join the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.