Responding to heavy criticism of Action and its director, Sam Brown, the House yesterday voted to strip the federal volunteer agency of the Peace Corps and place it in a proposed new international development cooperation agency.
The vote was 276 to 116, with liberal Democrats, who wanted the Peace Corps left in Action, making up the bulk of the votes against the move.
The Carter administration opposes the transfer of the Peace Corps, according to Richard Celeste, the former Ohio lieutenant governor whose appointment to head the Peace Corps was recommended yesterday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"A lot of people felt that the Peace Corps and Action were involved in some sort of a shotgun marriage and that, because of that, the marriage was weak. But my own, strong position has been to do what we can to stregthen the marriage and make it work," Celeste said.
Committee Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho) expressed doubts yesterday that the Peace Corps, racked by staff dissension, disagreement over policy objectives and bad publicity, could improve its health by remaining in Action. He said it is widely believed that Action was formed in July 1971 to help phase out or downgrade the Peace Corps and other volunteer programs.
Celeste acknowledged that legacy, but said he believed that what was done to hurt the Peace Corps may well turn out to be the thing to help it.
"There are some fundamental reasons why the Peace Corps should be in Action," he said in an interview. "One is that Action is an agency running volunteer programs in its own country, trying needs. Other countries see that," he said. As a result, he said, other countries are less prone to view Peace Corps volunteers as American agents trying to tell them what to do.
The House vote to transfer the Peace Corps came during consideration of a foreign aid bill, that the House passed 220 to 173 after trimming 5 percent from most of its programs, cutting the measure from $4.17 billion to $4.03 billion for fiscal 1980.
Though the administration opposed the Peace Corps transfer, the rest of the foreign aid bill came out relatively unscathed in a year when budget-cutting rhetoric had made foreign aid more vulnerable to attack than usual.
"We're in traction," said one administration lobbyist, "but our arm's not broken."
"Hearings have shown that the Peace Corps is badly managed under Action," said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), "and morale has badly deteriorated."
Zablocki said that, under the new agency, the Peace Corps would have autonomy it does not now have under Action. Should the new agency not be created, the Peace Corps would become an independent agency.
Reps. Christopher J. Dodd (D.Conn.) and Tony P Hall (D-Ohio), two former Peace Corps volunteers, argued that placing the Peace Corps in a development agency would politicize it and end the separation from U.S. foreign policy that the volunteers enjoyed.
Putting it in an agency that doesn't exist was a bit of "legislative magic at least," Dodd said.
But Rep. Don L Bonker (D-Wash.) said Action had made the Peace Corps "subservient to an agency more concerned with domestic programs that person-to-person programs. As long as it stays in Action, it will be subject to political activities by the White House, he charged.
Rep Robert H Michel (Ill.), the Republican whip, who has attacked Action Director Brown for his policies frequently over the last two years, accused Brown of using the Peace Corps for his own polictical ends. He brought up the firing by Brown of former Peace Corps director Carolyn Payton, and charged that the Peace Corps, under Brown, was being used for "ideological purposes."
The attack on Brown by House conservative Republicans, far from quieting, escalated Monday, when Brown was subjected to a 12-hour grilling before the House Education and Labor Committee.
Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio), who led the attack, said, "The way grants were handled suggests a conspiracy and possible violations of the law against fraud and making false statements."
Ashbrook charged that Brown failed to hold public hearings before making 12 grants of some $4 million, but gave the grants to six groups that had attended informal sessions in his office on what the goals Vista, the domestic volunteer agency, should be. Ashbrook also charged that grants were given to a group that engaged in lobbying, the National Public Interest Research Group Clearinghouse.
Education and Labor subcommittee chairman Rep. Paul M. Simon (D-Ill.) said Ashbrook was "on a fishing expedition" and "proved nothing. Nothing illegal or unethical was involved." He said he let Ashbrook call six witnesses and let the hearing go on at length to give the Republicans "every possible chance" to prove their charges.
The 5 percent cut in foreign aid amounted to about $130 million. It was approved 259 to 135. The cut does not touch the Food for Peace program or funding of aid to Egypt and Israel. It does cut about $10 million from population and family planning programs, $7 million from Agency for International Development health programs and about $1 million in disaster relief programs.
But the cut adopted was half of a 10 percent cut proposed by Rep. Robert E Bauman (R-Md.)
The action on both the cuts and the issue of transferring the Peace Corps now move to the Senate, which has not yet passed a foreign aid bill.