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Archive | Voices and Views

Governing by crisis isn’t governing at all 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton, Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University

After Congress came a hair’s breadth from shutting down the Department of Homeland Security a few weeks ago, members of the leadership tried to reassure the American people. “We’re certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Congress, he said, would not lurch from crisis to crisis.

I wish I could be so confident. Because if you look at the year ahead, the congressional calendar is littered with opportunities to do just that, with deadlines for the Highway Trust Fund, Export-Import Bank, debt ceiling, and the Treasury’s borrowing power all approaching. My bet is not on smooth sailing.

This is a huge problem. Great democracies do not veer from one doomsday moment to the next, nor do they fund government on a week-to-week basis. Yet that is precisely the habit Congress has developed. It’s embarrassing.

During the weeks Congress held Homeland Security hostage, the department had to get ready for roughly 30,000 employees to be furloughed, ask crucial employees to be willing to work without pay—we’re talking the border patrol, Coast Guard, screeners at airports, cargo inspectors…the people on the front lines—and prepare to shut down ongoing research and planning on making the country safer. Terrorism overseas was consuming the attention of our national security agencies, but the department charged with protecting the nation at home had to be consumed with shuttering its operations.

We need a Congress that can address its problems before a crisis comes up. What will it take? Members need to work at legislating every day, not just the three days in the middle of the week. Congressional leaders need to move legislation through in an orderly fashion. The so-called “Hastert Rule”—that the Speaker of the House will not allow a vote on a bill unless he has a majority of his own party behind it—needs to be jettisoned for good, not just in extreme circumstances. And perhaps most important, the tactic of tying two unrelated issues together in order to force an opponent’s hand needs to be rejected.

The parade of make-or-break issues that Congress faces this year presents myriad opportunities for legislative mischief. If all we see before us is one government-shutdown threat after another, the remaining faith Americans hold in our chief lawmaking body could disappear altogether. And deservedly so.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. Go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University,” and share our postings with your friends.

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Mackinac Center gets FOIA charges reduced from$1,550 to $50

 

sw-riconcMichigan Liquor Control Commission waives fees for virtual copies

In celebration of Sunshine Week (March 15-21), the Mackinac Center for Public Policy announces its victory in persuading the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to release public information at a more reasonable cost. After being sued by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, the MLCC removed the charges for paper copies that do not exist.

On Nov. 7, 2014, Fiscal Policy Director Michael LaFaive requested data from the government agency in person while conducting research on “post and hold” rules for alcohol prices. Those rules allow wholesale distributors to collude and keep prices artificially high. Empirical research estimates consumers pay 6.4 percent to 30 percent more because of this practice.

An MLCC employee told LaFaive the data could be transferred to a flash drive on the spot. Not having a flash drive at the time, LaFaive offered to return in person with one to obtain the information. LaFaive agreed to submit an official Freedom of Information Act request.

On November 14, MLCC’s FOIA coordinator said a cost estimate and deposit was required for processing. The invoice estimated the cost of to be $50.22 for an hour and a half of labor ($33.48/hour) and $1,500 for copying 6,000 pages, at 25 cents a page.

On Jan. 22, 2015, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking relief from being charged for 6,000 virtual pages that did not exist on paper. Because of the lawsuit, the government agency withdrew its cost for digital files.

“Keeping government transparent and accountable to taxpayers is a primary concern for us,” said Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Senior Attorney Derk Wilcox. “Taxpayers have a right to this public information. They should not be charged exorbitant amounts of money for documents that are rightfully theirs, nor should they be charged for virtual copies of public documents. The MLCC tried to put a roadblock in the way of the public getting information. Our lawsuit changed its mind.”

In 2013, the foundation sued the city of Westland for charging an illegal gatekeeping fee and overcharging for labor and copying costs. As a result of the lawsuit, Westland changed its policies to comply with the law.

“The Mackinac Center uses FOIA to make sure government is serving the public, not the system,” said Executive Vice President Michael J. Reitz, who also serves as a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. “Government agencies should be willing to comply with the law rather than try to find ways to avoid it.”

“The MLCC FOIA coordinator said it was waiving fees for hypothetical copies ‘in the spirit of cooperation,’” said LaFaive. “We hope that cooperation continues when we request public documents in the future.”

 

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Spring into a stress-free retirement

 

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

As we say “goodbye” to winter weather hardships and “hello” to gardens budding with vibrant color, we welcome the season by celebrating Stress Awareness Month.

Did you know that stress, also called the “silent killer,” could cause heart disease and high blood pressure? Recognizing the sources of stress is the best way to understand how you can start eliminating factors in your life that put unnecessary strain on your body and mind.

Social Security wants to make your retirement planning as stress-free as possible, which is why we have a number of online tools available for you. You can create your own secure, personal my Social Security account from the comfort of your living room and avoid unpleasant traffic and a possible long wait in one of our field offices. Once you have a my Social Security account, you can view your Social Security Statement, verify your earnings record, and find out what to expect in monthly benefits if you retire at ages 62, 67, or 70.

Once you begin receiving Social Security benefits, you can use my Social Security to check your benefit information, change your address and phone number, change your electronic payment method, and obtain an instant benefit verification letter and replacement SSA-1099/1042S.

You can easily sign up for my Social Security at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

When you decide it’s time to start receiving your retirement benefits, the application process is far less stressful now that you’re prepared. You can securely apply online without picking up the phone or leaving your house. Simply go to www.socialsecurity.gov/applyonline, and, in as little as 15 minutes, you can breeze through our online retirement application.

Our website and online tools are always available. You can enjoy Social Security’s stress-free retirement planning tools any time of the year, giving you more time to enjoy these warmer months.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

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EarthTalk®

E – The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “National Food Policy” that environmentalists and foodies are asking President Obama to enact by Executive Order, and how would it affect American diets?

  — Justin Brockway, Los Angeles, CA

 

Existing federal guidelines for the U.S. diet, known as MyPlate, recommend that half the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, yet these foods are granted less than one percent of farm subsidies.

Existing federal guidelines for the U.S. diet, known as MyPlate, recommend that half the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, yet these foods are granted less than one percent of farm subsidies.

A November 2014 op-ed piece in The Washington Post entitled “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives” makes the case for President Obama to sign into law an executive order establishing a national food policy for managing the nation’s food system as a whole.

Authored by food writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, along with Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, the op-ed states that because of unhealthy diets, a third of our kids will develop Type 2 diabetes—a preventable disease that was formerly rare in children.

“Type 2 diabetes is a disease that, along with its associated effects, now costs $245 billion, or 23 percent of the national deficit in 2012, to treat each year,” the authors note. “The good news is that solutions are within reach—precisely because the problems are largely a result of government policies.” The authors cite Brazil and Mexico—countries they consider “far ahead of the United States in developing food policies”—as examples for positive change: “Mexico’s recognition of food as a key driver of public health led to the passage last year of a national tax on junk food and soda, which in the first year has reduced consumption of sugary beverages by 10 percent and increased consumption of water.”

While the White House has not responded in any way to the suggestion thus far, the article’s message that the current food system has caused “incalculable damage” remains alarming.

Whether or not to pass our own tax on junk food and soda in the U.S. has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Some say it’s deceitful to suggest that a tax on sodas is necessary to curb obesity and Type 2 diabetes when numerous other unhealthy options like sugary caffeinated beverages, candy, ice cream, fast food and video games that promote sedentary behavior would still be widely available. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Public Economics suggests that soft drink taxation leads to a moderate reduction in soft drink consumption by children and adolescents; however “this reduction in soda consumption is completely offset by increases in consumption of other high-calorie drinks.” Furthermore, in 2010, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that “an extra 12 cents on a can of soda would raise nearly $1 billion,” which suggests that government officials expect people to continue buying soda despite the tax.

Even though passing a soda tax has proven to be controversial, The Washington Post op-ed clearly points out the federal government’s contradictions concerning food. Existing federal guidelines for the U.S. diet, known as MyPlate, recommend that half the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, yet these foods are granted less than one percent of farm subsidies. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of subsidies go toward corn and other grains. The result, the op-ed states, is the “spectacle of Michelle Obama warning Americans to avoid high-fructose corn syrup at the same time the president is signing farm bills that subsidize its production.”

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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Social Security questions and answers

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

Question: I am very happy that I was just approved to receive disability benefits. How long will it be before I get my first payment?

Answer: If you’re eligible for Social Security disability benefits, there is a five-month waiting period before your benefits begin. We’ll pay your first benefit for the sixth full month after the date we find your disability began. For example, if your disability began on June 15, 2015, your first benefit would be paid for the month of December 2015, the sixth full month of disability, and you would receive your first benefit payment in January 2016. You can read more about the disability benefits approval process at www.socialsecurity.gov/dibplan/dapproval.htm.

Question: I’m applying for disability benefits, and I read about “substantial gainful activity.” What is that?

Answer: The term “substantial gainful activity,” or SGA, is used to describe a level of work activity and earnings. Work is “substantial” if it involves doing significant physical or mental activities or a combination of both. If you are working and earn more than a certain amount, we generally consider that you are engaging in substantial gainful activity. In this case, you wouldn’t be eligible for disability benefits. You can read more about how we define substantial gainful activity at www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/COLA/sga.html.

Question: My father gets Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for a disability. He is now legally blind and wants to receive information from Social Security in an alternative format. How do I help him?

Answer: Social Security is dedicated to providing vital information in the most effective way for every recipient. There are several ways to receive information from us if you’re blind or have a visual impairment. You can choose to receive Braille notices and a standard print notice by first-class mail; a Microsoft Word file on a data compact disc (CD) and a print standard notice by first-class mail; an audio CD and a standard print notice by first-class mail; or a large print (18-point size) notice and a standard print notice by first-class mail. You can request these special notice options by visiting www.socialsecurity.gov/people/blind.

Question: My mother receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. She’ll be going to live with my sister next month. Does she have to report the move to Social Security?

Answer: Yes, she should report any change in living arrangements to us within 10 days. The change could affect her payment. Failure to report the change could result in an incorrect SSI payment that may have to be paid back. Also, we need her correct address so we can send her important correspondence about her SSI benefits. She can easily change her address by accessing her personal my Social Security account at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. She can also call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Question: I recently retired and am approaching the age when I can start receiving Medicare. What is the monthly premium for Medicare Part B?

Answer: The standard Medicare Part B premium for medical insurance is currently $104.90 per month. Since 2007, some people with higher incomes must pay a higher monthly premium for their Medicare coverage. You can get details at www.medicare.gov or by calling 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) (TTY 1-877-486-2048).

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With the budget, the President calls the shots

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

It may not be obvious from the news coverage, but a good bit of Congress’s 2015 agenda just landed on Capitol Hill with a thud. I mean this literally. The federal budget that President Obama recently submitted runs to 2,000 pages.

This is the most important government document produced each year, so its heft is more than physical. The budget is how we decide what share of this country’s economic resources we should devote to government—and how we should spend them.

Which is why the political maneuvering begins the moment it arrives. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard a budget declared “dead on arrival.”

Yet here’s what you need to remember: Congress changes only a small portion of the budget. In general, all but five or ten percent of the White House’s spending blueprint will make it through intact. The President’s budget, in other words, is never “dead on arrival.”

This is not to say that what Congress does will be unimportant. The debate from here on out will be specifically about taxing and spending priorities—about how much money should go to defense, or homeland security, or social welfare—and more generally about who has the best ideas for addressing the country’s needs.

Congress faces important questions. The deficit, which in past years was the focus of furious debate, holds less attention this year because we’ve made so much progress in reducing it. On the other hand, the federal debt—what we owe to creditors who financed our accumulated annual deficits—is higher than it’s been for generations. We do not need to panic about our finances, but we can’t afford to be complacent either.

There will be voices in Congress over the next few months urging that we curb spending sharply. In a recovering economy still beset with income stagnation, I’d argue that slamming hard on the brakes would be a mistake. Instead, we need to shift our spending toward investment, focusing on areas that generate or underpin economic growth: infrastructure, research and development, education.

Congress used to reign supreme in budget-making. Now, the President has become the chief budget-maker. The maneuvering on Capitol Hill over the next few months will nudge the country in one direction or another. But our basic course was already set by the time those 2,000 pages hit lawmakers’ desks.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Can we have a regular congress? 

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

You probably didn’t notice, but the Senate passed a milestone a couple of weeks back. Before 2015 was a month old, senators had already had a chance to vote up-or-down on more amendments than they did in all of 2014.

This is a promising sign that new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have meant it when he declared last year that he wants the Senate to return to the “regular order” of debate and amendments. For the last few weeks, a favorite inside-the-Beltway guessing game has been whether he’d be willing to stick with it in the face of demands, sure to come, to reduce debate and amendments and expedite approval of bills.

I know you’re thinking this is just inside baseball. Let me explain why it matters. In Washington, the line between process and policy is blurred. The policies Congress produces are forged by the process it uses, and the leaders of the two houses have great power over that process and hence over the results. Talking about how Congress makes laws is the same as talking about what it does in those laws.

So a return to the “regular order,” on either or both sides of the Capitol, has enormous implications. There is no single solution to Congress’s problems, but it’s hard to imagine Congress can get past its dysfunction without adopting the regular order.

If you’re uncertain what I mean, you’re not alone. There are a lot of lawmakers who have very little idea what it entails either because they were elected after Congress abandoned it in the 1990s.

At its simplest, the regular order is what you learned in school. A member introduces a bill, which is referred to committee. The committee hears from experts, looks at its options, considers amendments, and then reports the bill to the floor, where there’s more debate and deliberation. The other body goes through the same process, and the separate bills they produce get reconciled in a conference committee, where the members also talk to the President’s representatives about what he’ll want to see in order to approve the measure. Finally, the President approves or rejects the bill. The process, though never perfect, is relatively open, fair to all members, and promotes accountability.

Over the last few decades, however, Congress has adopted an alternative approach: the mega-bill. These bills usually run to hundreds if not thousands of pages. They bypass the committees and get drafted in the offices of the leadership. They limit amendments to a few, if any. They limit debate. They constrict — if not eliminate — thoughtful consideration and largely dispense with votes except for an up or down vote on the entire mega-bill. They invite all kinds of last-minute and under-the-table deals. They shut ordinary members out of the process, undermine participation, shield Congress from public scrutiny, and are, in short, an outrage to democracy. Yet they’ve become a habit on Capitol Hill.

Why? They’re convenient and concentrate power in the hands of the leadership.

At a very basic level I’ve never understood why they’ve had such staying power. The regular order holds clear advantages for the majority of legislators. It’s more open, produces more accountability, and gives ordinary members a sense they’ve had a fair shot at influencing the course of national policy. This is no minor consideration. When the process works well, it produces better-quality legislation and pride in the institution, because members know they’re taking part in fair procedures. When members take pride in the work being done around them, they communicate that sense to their constituents.

But reliance on mega-bills has imposed a great cost on Washington. Federal agencies cannot plan ahead. Government operations get disrupted. Uncertainty abounds. Backroom deals flourish. Secrecy pervades the process from beginning to end. Public confidence in government erodes. Members themselves feel shunted to the sidelines.

It is hard to get voters focused on congressional process when they’re so focused on particular issues — how a candidate feels about climate change or abortion. But the plain truth is that the regular order enhances the chance that legislation that truly represents what’s best for Americans will emerge from Capitol Hill. Maybe one day Congress will come to believe this, too.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. Go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

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We need term limits

Lee Hamilton is the last person to offer objective arguments against term limits on Congress. (The Cedar Springs Post, January 22, 2014.) He fed at the public trough for 34 years and could not possibly remember what the average American is going through to feed, clothe and educate a family. What has Harry Reid done to help, for example?

Term limits are needed so there will eventually be elected to Congress enough legislators with the courage to punish the IRS abusers, imprison government officials hiding the facts of the border patrol agent’s death, make public the real reason we lost four Americans, including an ambassador, at Benghazi.

We need legislators with the courage to no O.K. spending bills that include $400 hammers and all the other wasting of tax dollars so many in Congress feel is necessary in order to be reelected term after term. Term limits would allow a legislator the freedom to act in the best interest of their constituents and not worry about if it would lose votes.

And to suggest that long term legislators have the “…ability to legislate effectively and oversee the government responsibly…” would be laughable if it wasn’t so distant from reality.

 

Sincerely, 

Kenn Hildebrand, Newaygo

 

Post Script Notice:

The Cedar Springs Post welcomes letters of up to 350 words. The subject should be relevant to local readers, and the editor reserves the right to reject letters or edit for clarity, length, good taste, accuracy, and liability concerns. All submissions MUST be accompanied by full name, mailing address and daytime phone number. We use this information to verify the letter’s authenticity. We do not print anonymous letters, or acknowledge letters we do not use. Writers are limited to one letter per month. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to PostScripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

 

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It’ll never be time for term limits on Congress 

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.

Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular, and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could get thrown out automatically has great appeal.

I should say up front that you’re not going to hear a strong argument in favor of term limits from a guy who served 34 years in Congress. But I want to spell out the reasons for my bias, not because I think term limits are a burning issue in Washington—they’re not—but because I wish they were less of an issue for ordinary voters. Congress has a lot of problems right now, and term limits are a distraction from the truly hard work that needs to be done.

Term limits supporters believe that bringing in fresh thinking and new leaders on a regular basis will make Congress more representative. However, stripping voters of the right to re-elect a representative whom they’ve supported in the past does not make for a more democratic system; rather, it makes it less.

It also weakens Congress. If you take power away from a senior legislator, that power does not evaporate. Instead, it flows to the bureaucracy and the President. Serving productively in Congress is a tough, exacting task. It demands a deep knowledge of the issues that confront the country, a keen eye, backed by years of experience, for the ways in which executive agencies can go off track, insight into the ways in colleagues might be motivated to shift their positions, and the hard-earned wisdom to forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies.

Kicking members of Congress out of their seats just as they’re gaining the ability to legislate effectively and oversee the government responsibly is tantamount to demoting Congress to the status of a minor agency. Term limits are not the solution to the real dysfunction that besets Washington. They reduce the choices of voters, shift power to the executive branch, and move representative democracy in the wrong direction.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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From dream to reality with MySocialSecurity

 

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about his dream of an America where equality was more than a concept—where it was an everyday reality.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

His dream struck a chord with many people and inspired a nation. It shined a light on the ideal that every citizen should have equal opportunity to prosper and succeed.

As we remember Dr. King and his dream for America, take a moment to reflect on your dreams for yourself and your family. What are the things that you want for your future? Do you see yourself enjoying retirement someday?

With some planning, that dream can come true. The best way to keep your retirement dreams on track is by opening a mySocialSecurity account. A mySocialSecurity account is an excellent tool that helps you plan for the future. It lets you verify your earnings on your personal Social Security Statement—because your future retirement benefit depends on your earnings throughout your career. You can view your Statement at any time, giving you a good picture of what your future benefits will be. When you are ready to retire, you can even go online to apply for benefits from your home or office.

The advantages of having a mySocialSecurity account don’t stop after you retire. Once you start receiving benefits, you can manage them with a mySocialSecurity account. You can get an instant benefit verification letter, check your benefit and payment information, change your address and phone number, and start or change your direct deposit information—all online.

Setting up a mySocialSecurity account is quick, secure, and easy. Millions of Americans already have accounts. In fact, someone opens one about every 6 seconds. Join the crowd and sign up today at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

 

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

 

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