WASHINGTON — The White House celebration of the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps program Friday seemed the perfect photo-op to mark a rare act of bipartisanship.
A brilliant sun shone on the White House lawn, a military band played, and hundreds of young volunteers applauded as President Obama hailed what’s known as the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps.
But as Obama and former president Bill Clinton ticked off AmeriCorps’ achievements, and the two former president Bushes paid homage from afar, the ceremony could not mask a Washington reality: It was also a marker of broken promises.
Five years after Congress passed legislation to expand the program — which drew much of its inspiration from Boston’s City Year — it has fallen far short of the goal of reaching 250,000 volunteers by 2017.
Called the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, the national service program has funding for only about 80,000 positions. At the time Obama signed the bill, which was a tribute to the ailing senator, AmeriCorps had 75,000 volunteers.
“It’s an incredible disappointment,” said AnnMaura Connolly, president of Voices for National Service, which advocates for the program. She is also an executive at City Year.
House Republicans have tried to eliminate funding for the program, and Obama, a former community organizer who ran on a promise to make public service a priority, has failed in most years to propose a budget large enough to meet the program’s goals.
“It’s stalled, even though so many young people want to serve, even though it’s getting results,” said Michael Brown, chief executive and co-founder of City Year, which continues to be a large source of volunteers for AmeriCorps through programs it runs in 25 cities.
The White House blamed “a tough budget environment” for the failure to reach the goal, but said Obama is nonetheless expanding national service opportunities through partnerships with other federal agencies and the private sector.
Advocates hope Friday’s nostalgic celebration will spur new funding. Victoria Kennedy, widow of the late senator, attended along with Phyllis Segal, widow to Eli Segal, the former Clinton administration official from Boston who helped design the program and served as its first director.
Obama paid homage to Kennedy, recalling that the signing ceremony for the 2009 law expanding AmeriCorps “was one of the last big events that Teddy did.”
AmeriCorps participants work through local nonprofit groups and agencies on education and youth programs, veterans assistance, antipoverty, the environment, and disaster relief. They have been a highly visible presence after natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo.
Clinton, who started AmeriCorps as president, extolled its bipartisan history during Friday’s ceremony. Former president George H. W. Bush, who helped lay some of the program’s groundwork and also made volunteering a centerpiece of his administration, took part in a parallel celebration in Kennebunkport, at one of 95 held Friday across the country, including in Boston. Former president George W. Bush, who expanded AmeriCorps, appeared in a video marking the anniversary that was shown at some of those satellite celebrations.
Obama spoke about the effects of public service on his own career, and the difference it has made in literacy programs, renewing his call to support AmeriCorps.
“If we’re smart, Congress will fund this calling that’s meant so much to so many, and keep AmeriCorps strong,” he said.
Wendy Spencer, who oversees AmeriCorps as part of her role as chief executive of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, blames the downturn in the economy for curbing the program’s growth.
She said the presence of volunteers in the aftermath of national disasters has helped build strong bipartisan support at the local level.
“My interaction with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle is very encouraging,” said Spencer, a Republican appointed by Obama.
The program, which will cost $473.5 million this year, awards competitive grants to nonprofit and other groups that use the money, along with matching funds, to provide living stipends, often about $13,000, to the volunteers. A separate federal account provides $5,645 a year to pay future tuition or college loans for participants.
Proponents say the program helps communities and inspires young people to lead.
“I feel excited and motivated,” said Estephani Floris, a 23-year-old Mount Holyoke graduate, who shook Clinton and Obama’s hands at the ceremony. She said she was inspired by Teach for America volunteers who supported her academic career, and she will spend the next year working on an antipoverty program being funded by AmeriCorps.
But critics say the program is a waste of taxpayer money. Recent budgets approved by the House of Representatives have eliminated it completely, by killing the Corporation for National and Community Service, which funds AmeriCorps.
Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican who chairs the budget committee, declined to comment, through a spokesman. But the budget resolution passed by the House notes that “participation in these programs is not based on need.”
“Americans’ generosity in contributing their time and money to these efforts is extraordinary and should be encouraged,” the budget said. “However, the federal government already has aid programs focused on low-income students, and paying volunteers is not a core federal responsibility, especially in times of high deficits and debt.”
The Senate has voted consistently to keep the program alive, and budget deals between the two chambers have maintained funding.
Despite the House’s vote for the budget that eliminated AmeriCorps funding, many Republicans said they support the program’s goals. Representative Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican, said the recent standoffs on the federal budget have made it more difficult for allies like him to make the case. He is particularly fond of a program in his community that pairs AmeriCorps workers with at-risk children.
“They grab hold of them,” he said. “The results prove the program. It’s a matter of taking a look at that.”