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AMERICORPS GIVES LIE TO CLAIM CLINTON IS ANTI-BIG GOVERNMENT

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PRESIDENT CLINTON HAS BEEN sounding more like a New Republican than a New Democrat lately, calling for an end to big government.

But his oratory is belied by his record, especially one of his proudest legislative accomplishments: the Americorps national service program.After staunchly opposing the program, congressional Republicans capitulated last month to a temporary spending measure that kept it alive. By focusing more on cutting the budget than on the programs that need cutting, conservatives allowed themselves to be outfoxed by the president.

Clinton presented Americorps as more than just another federal program. It was to be "citizenship at its best," the essence of his "new covenant" between the people and their government.

Americorps, the president claimed, was going to strengthen local charities and show that government money could stimulate private giving. The program would not only promote community service. It would combat an attitude of entitlement among young people by en-cour-ag-ing them to work to earn money for higher education.

Yet in 11/2 years of its existence, Americorps has shown itself to be everything that is wrong with big government.

Last year, a General Accounting Office audit revealed that each participant costs the Treasury about $27,000 per year - roughly $10,000 more than Americorps had estimated.

The program also appeared to have its own agenda, spending tax dollars on liberal programs such as sex education, self-esteem enhancement projects and advocacy groups for liberal causes.

Finally, in spite of the president's claim that federal money could be used to leverage private support, the General Accounting Office audit found that only 12 percent of Americorps funds came from private sources.

The program allowed groups to substitute the blessing of a government grant for the hard work of gaining and sustaining local support - the essence of grass-roots accountability.

The very premise of Americorps contradicts the principle of responsibility that is at the heart of self-government. It implies that local social problems are Washington's to solve.

John P. Walters is president of the New Citizenship Project.