Following on big news from the Senate, let’s ensure that Congress passes the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in a generation.
By Jonathan Pearson
In these times when division and discord define politics across the nation, recent months tell a different story when it comes to support for the Peace Corps. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate have come together to bring forth meaningful bipartisan legislation.
On June 23, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2022 (S. 4466). Led by Chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member James Risch (R-ID), the bill had six bipartisan co-sponsors out of the gate.
Additional co-sponsors joined the bill in July and August, and at time of publication they include Ben Cardin (D-MD), Todd Young (R-IN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Rob Portman (R-OH), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Coons (D-DE), Gary Peters (D-MI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Susan Collins (R-ME). On July 19, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the bill on a voice vote. It now awaits being taken up by the full Senate.
“This once-in-a-generation bill implements necessary reforms to make certain the Peace Corps has what is required to meet the needs of its Volunteers around the world.”
—Senator Robert Menendez, Chair, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
“This once-in-a-generation bill implements necessary reforms to make certain the Peace Corps has what is required to meet the needs of its Volunteers around the world,” said Sen. Menendez in July. “From including necessary student loan reforms to affirming a path to federal government employment for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, this legislation also ensures that the agency better reflects the United States’ rich diversity and talent.”
As Sen. Risch noted in a release introducing the legislation, “The 2022 Peace Corps Reauthorization bill is a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the Peace Corps for the first time in over a decade and to provide necessary reforms to improve the safety and security of Volunteers as they re-enter the field. By reauthorizing the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, mandating security briefings, improving whistleblower protections, and adding a new authority to suspend Peace Corps Volunteers without pay in the event of misbehavior, the Peace Corps will be able to better support Volunteers at home and abroad.”
“The 2022 Peace Corps Reauthorization bill is a bipartisan effort to reauthorize the Peace Corps for the first time in over a decade and to provide necessary reforms to improve the safety and security of Volunteers as they re-enter the field. By reauthorizing the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, mandating security briefings, improving whistleblower protections, and adding a new authority to suspend Peace Corps Volunteers without pay in the event of misbehavior, the Peace Corps will be able to better support Volunteers at home and abroad.”
—Senator James Risch, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
The bipartisan legislation also serves as the Senate companion to H.R. 1456, introduced in March 2021 by Representatives John Garamendi (D-CA) and Garret Graves (R-LA); it was approved overwhelmingly by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September 2021. Senate and House leaders will be discussing and strategizing on how to best bring this legislation before their respective chambers for a vote.
About the Legislation
The House and Senate bills contain a broad range of improvements and reforms for the agency; for current and returned Volunteers; and for the communities where they serve. Both bills further efforts to address the health, safety, security, and well-being of Volunteers. They bolster efforts to strengthen diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. And several long-sought improvements to support RPCVs and honor their service are included. While the bills have many similarities, there are significant differences which will eventually need to be reconciled.
Key elements that both bills have in common
Non-Competitive Eligibility: Traditionally, returning Volunteers receive one year of non-competitive eligibility (NCE) for federal employment. Both the House and Senate bills increase this to two years of NCE.
Paid Health Insurance: Returning Volunteers currently receive one month of paid health insurance. Both bills would extend that to two months. The Senate bill also ensures Volunteers receive adequate health exams in preparing for service; care during service, including access to mental health professionals; and a path to obtain insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act after service.
Protecting Volunteers Against Reprisal or Retaliation: Whistleblower protections currently extend to staff. Both bills would provide Volunteers with protections against reprisal or retaliation.
Medical Education, Guidance, and Menstrual Hygiene: Both bills provide further medical staff education and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on malaria prophylaxis. They also strengthen access and affordability for menstrual/hygiene products for Volunteers wherever they are serving.
Returning to Service after Evacuation: Both bills seek to ensure that future Volunteers facing evacuation are afforded expedited opportunities to return to service.
Elements found in each bill — but with key differences
Peace Corps Funding: H.R. 1456 proposes increased funding for the Peace Corps in the coming years, while S. 4466 continues to propose flat funding of $410.5 million for each of the next five years.
Disability Pay Rates for RPCVs: Both bills propose a long needed increase in the workers compensation rates for RPCVs who are disabled due to service related injuries or illness. The House bill recommends a compensation increase of roughly $1,000/month, while the Senate bill recommends a roughly $300/month increase.
Extend the Work of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council: Both bills extend the work of the congressionally mandated Sexual Assault Advisory Council, currently scheduled to expire at the end of 2023. The House bill extends the work through 2025; the Senate bill extends the work through 2027.
Provisions found only in House legislation
Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act: This long-sought House legislation would formally allow the use of the Peace Corps symbol at gravesites and in death notices.
Virtual Service Programs: The House bill would formally authorize the agency’s current Virtual Service Pilot program.
Domestic Service During Emergencies: The House bill would codify circumstances allowing other federal agencies to seek use of Peace Corps Volunteers during domestic emergencies, such as the partnership with FEMA community vaccination centers in 2021 to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Provisions found only in Senate legislation
Student Loan Relief: The Senate bill would provide certain student loan relief for RPCVs, including suspension of interest during service and public service credit for Volunteers as part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program run by the Department of Education.
Suspend Agency Employees Without Pay for Misconduct: In response to the tragic killing of Rabia Issa, a mother of three in Tanzania who was struck by a vehicle driven by a Peace Corps employee in 2018, the Senate legislation gives the agency the authority to suspend an employee without pay if they are engaged in serious misconduct which could lead to removal for cause.
This Is the Moment
Advocacy efforts by members of the Peace Corps community, including those led by National Peace Corps Association, have been instrumental in making this legislation possible. In the months following the global evacuation of Volunteers in 2020 because of COVID-19, NPCA convened a series of town halls and a global ideas summit to consider how to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
The resulting community-driven report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” contains scores of recommendations for the agency and executive branch, Congress, and the wider Peace Corps community. Those recommendations range from recruitment and selection to effective programming and placement; from the health and safety of serving Volunteers to the benefits and support for returned Volunteers. The recommendations have shaped new agency initiatives and policies, and they have shaped the House and Senate legislation. In concrete terms, more than 20 recommendations contained in the report would be advanced — directly or indirectly — if a final, strong version of the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is signed into law.
On student loans, a group of returned Volunteers has been instrumental in providing expertise and advice to legislators and their staff. And whistleblower and workers comp issues have long had leadership among RPCVs.
Now is the time for us as a community to make our voices heard. If we do, then we can be confident that just as the Peace Corps is returning to the field, so too will there be a renewed, revitalized, and reshaped Peace Corps for the next generation of Volunteers.
The past six months have seen the steady, growing, and responsible return of Volunteers to service in communities overseas. By October 2022, the agency projects Volunteers will be serving in 30 countries. By October 2023, Volunteers are expected to be back in most of the 60 pre-pandemic countries of service.
The very best way we can say “thank you for your service” to the newest generation of Peace Corps Volunteers is to come together and make sure the strongest possible Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is signed into law this year. And there is reason to be hopeful, as there’s strong bipartisan backing in both chambers of Congress.
However, with congressional elections looming, the window for final passage of the legislation is narrowing. Now is the time for us as a community to make our voices heard. If we do, then we can be confident that just as the Peace Corps is returning to the field, so too will there be a renewed, revitalized, and reshaped Peace Corps for the next generation of Volunteers.
This story appears in the Spring-Summer 2022 print edition of WorldView magazine.
Jonathan Pearson is director of advocacy for National Peace Corps Association.