At a time when the federal deficit is out of control, when building a budget has come to resemble a circus act, when programs are being cut and taxes raised, it hardly seems appropriate for Congress to approve $287 million in new spending for something as nebulous as "encouraging voluntarism and community service."

Yet that is what Congress found time to do this week and President Bush is expected to sign the measure.Clearly, there is nothing wrong with voluntarism. In fact, just the opposite. The tradition of giving service to others is one of the splendid features of American society and more people should do more of it.

But aside from the cost at a time when the country call ill afford it, the idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get people to do more things for free seems rather incongruous.

In addition, the legislation contains provisions that are not voluntarism at all in the basic sense of performing service without financial remuneration or fiscal reward.

For example, the measure provides for a test program of a civilian national service corps in which people would be given up to $5,000 worth of education assistance if they worked in community programs for a year at subsistence wages. If people have to be paid to perform community service, that's not voluntarism; it sounds more like a job.

All across the country, millions of people perform acts of kindness and service to the sick, the poor, the lonely, the helpless. They work in schools, clinics, nursing homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, churches and private homes without pay. They spend their own time and often their own money and frequently labor in anonymity. That's voluntarism and there should be more of it.

Getting the federal government involved would only create bureaucracy and red tape and probably be more hindrance than help. The $287 million should be used in other ways or applied against the deficit.