PolitiFact: O’Rourke backs off call for ‘mandatory’ national service

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Ted Cruz, said recently that he wants every young American to work a year for the government. And then he said something different.

That prompted us to roll out the PolitiFact Texas Flip-O-Meter, which gauges shifts in position.

O’Rourke, who’s been making webcasted campaign stops around Texas, spoke up in favor of a national service mandate while speaking in Corsicana on Jan. 4. O’Rourke specified that he hopes to introduce legislation this year requiring all young Americans to spend at least a year “in service to this country.”

Some context: His campaign’s Facebook Live post of O’Rourke’s remarks shows that the El Paso lawmaker aired his interest in mandatory national service after an audience member asked: “How do we meet the challenge of the increasing wealth gap?”

O’Rourke responded, in part, by mentioning his concerns about Republican-passed federal tax changes. He also talked up improved access to higher education before turning to requiring national service, saying:

“One last idea on this — and I’m trying to find a Republican colleague, and I may have one, and I hope to announce it soon, who will help me to introduce this into the Congress this year — and that is a national service bill that will require every young person, no matter how wealthy or how poor, to spend at least a year of their lives in service to this country, in a military unit, in a conservation corps unit, in a medical unit, in a teaching unit, in some way that they’re going to help to make this country better and stronger and have to sacrifice together and leave that with a shared understanding of who we are as a people — and no kid is going to be rich enough to buy their way out of it and no kid (interrupted by applause).”

O’Rourke had already embraced the idea of expanding national service. Last June, O’Rourke was among more than 150 House co-sponsors of the America’s Call To Improve Opportunities Now for National Service Act filed by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.

That legislation doesn’t require any Americans to perform government service. Still, the proposal would result in at least a million government-linked “service opportunities” and reward “young people who serve two full terms of service” with four years of their home state’s average in-state tuition. The resulting program, the bill’s summary says, would “help the nation address priorities in education, infrastructure, health care, disaster relief and poverty.”

In September, O’Rourke said in an interview with The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas, that improved college affordability could lead young Texans to return to their home communities after college.

O’Rourke then said that compulsory national service might be appropriate. “Maybe a next step is a national service program, which gives everyone the opportunity, or maybe compels young people to spend a year or two improving their communities. And in exchange for that, there is the ability again to pursue higher education, or training, or an apprenticeship or certification.”

So, what has changed?

A few days after the Corsicana appearance, O’Rourke said that he’d gone too far in saying that national service should be “mandatory.”

“That is a word that has concerned a lot of you,” O’Rourke said during a Jan. 8 livestream on Facebook. “And I’ve got to tell you, you’re right.

“I think I got way out in front of this without having the necessary conversation,” O’Rourke said, “without listening to enough of you about if you were serving as a teacher, if you were serving in the VA, if you were clearing trails in a conservation corps, if you were serving in the military, if you were doing some kind of service that helps to make your country stronger, your community better — that, that allows us all to have some sense of shared purpose and sacrifice in this country.

“You know,” O’Rourke went on, “talking about this being a requirement for everybody, that’s a few steps beyond the conversation that we’ve had already. So I want to tell you that I’ve heard you and that I’m listening to you — and I think I made a mistake without having listened to enough people and really had the conversation we need to have about what this would look like, getting so far out ahead on an issue.”

After watching the video, we inquired into O’Rourke’s up-to-date position on national service. An O’Rourke campaign spokesman, Chris Evans, replied by email: “He does not plan on introducing a bill to require mandatory national service. Texans made their voices heard and he is listening to them.”

Our ruling:

O’Rourke said he soon planned to file a proposal mandating at least a year of national service for all young Americans. A few days later, O’Rourke called his pitch for that mandate a mistake and, we confirmed, dropped plans to file a measure requiring national service.

We rate this shift a Full Flop.

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