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We need both insiders and outsiders in Congress 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

Members of Congress get categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.

There’s one important category, though, that I never hear discussed: whether a member wants to be an inside player or an outside player. Yet where members fall on the continuum helps to shape the institution of Congress.

Insiders focus on making the institution work. They give fewer speeches on the floor, issue fewer press releases, and spend less time considering how to play the public relations game or how to raise money. Instead, they put in long, tedious hours on developing legislation, attending hearings, listening to experts, exploring policy options, and working on building consensus. They’re the ones who do the necessary work of legislating.

Outsiders pass through the institution of Congress, but many of them are using Congress — and especially the House of Representatives — as a stepping-stone to another office: the Senate, a governorship, the presidency.

On Capitol Hill, these people behave very differently from insiders. They raise money aggressively, put a lot of effort into developing a public persona, and are consumed with public relations. They travel a lot. They churn out press releases and speak on the floor on every topic they can find something to deliver an opinion about. They miss votes more frequently than insiders, and often do not attend committee hearings. They’re often impatient with House and Senate traditions, and are impatient with the democratic process.

I want to be clear that I’m not judging which kind of member is more valuable. I may prefer to spend my time with insiders, but both are needed to make the system work. You have to have members reaching out to the broader public, talking about the big issues and engaging Americans in the issues of the day. And you need people on the inside who are dedicated to resolving those issues by attending to the legislation that will make this possible.

The truth is, Congress wouldn’t work if everyone were an outside player. The process is tedious, and outsiders have little patience for it. Yet if everyone were an insider, the country would be deprived of the dialogue, debate, and sheer spectacle that give Americans a sense of stake and participation in the policy-making process.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Who Belongs Behind Bars? 

 

Report Looks At Safely Reducing MI Prison Population

By Mona Shand, Michigan News Connection

Reviewing the policies surrounding who belongs in prison and for how long could help the state save hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a new report from the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.

Reviewing the policies surrounding who belongs in prison and for how long could help the state save hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a new report from the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending.

More people in prison doesn’t mean more crime, but it does mean the state needs to rethink its policies, according to a new report which looks at ways to reduce the state’s $2 billion annual prison spending.

Barbara Levine, associate director for research and policy for the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, which put out the report, said crime rates have been falling steadily for several years, and yet the state’s incarceration rate keeps rising, with 44,000 Michiganders now in state prisons.

“Decades of longer sentences, lower parole rates and the elimination of any form of sentence-reduction credits for good conduct or program participation has put Michigan out of sync with the rest of the country,” Levine said.

While some critics believe adjusting sentencing guidelines would compromise public safety, Levine said research has shown that longer sentences do not have an impact on a convict’s likelihood to reoffend. She said the strategies outlined in the report would save the state $250 million per year and cut the number of prisoners by 10,000 over five years.

Levine said the money saved would allow the state to address some of the issues that prevent crime and improve the quality of life for all Michiganders.

“More re-entry support for parolees,” she said. “More access to treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. More access to jobs, education, transportation, and decent housing in high incarceration communities.”

The full report is online at SmartJusticeforMI.org.

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Why run for office? 

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

I spend a fair amount of time talking to students and other young people about Congress and politics in general, and I’ve noticed something. It used to be that I’d regularly get asked how one runs for office. Nowadays, I rarely do.

A lot of young people are repelled by politics; they’ve lost faith in the system just as many other Americans have. But look. If you don’t have people who are willing to run for office, you don’t have a representative democracy. As the leading edge of the Millennial generation reaches the age where running for office is a realistic possibility, I hope they’ll consider a few things.

First, it’s hard to find a more challenging job. The number, complexity, and diversity of the problems we face are astounding. As a politician, your work is never done; your to-do list is always full. It’s intellectually as challenging an occupation as anything I can imagine.

Second, I don’t know of another profession that puts you in touch with more people of more different types, ages, and views. You meet—and, if you’re serious, really engage with—liberals and conservatives, voters rich and poor, religious believers and secular humanists alike. This is one of the great attractions of the job: the splendid array of individuals and convictions that you encounter in politics.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the work can be immensely satisfying. Whatever level you’re running at, whether it’s for the school board or for President, you’re doing it to try to make things work.

My first year in Congress, in 1965, I voted for Medicare. I’d had no role in drafting it. I played no substantive part in its passage. Yet, I still remember that vote, and I still derive deep satisfaction from it. Because I know that I voted for legislation that has helped millions of people, and will continue to do so into the future. That’s the thing about holding public office: you have a chance to contribute to the direction and success of a free society. In the scheme of things, this chance isn’t given to all that many people.

There is no America without democracy, no democracy without politics, and no politics without elected politicians. There are a lot of exciting, challenging and satisfying professions out there, but here’s what I tell young people: I consider politics chief among them.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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Congress says, “War Powers? What War Powers?” 

V-Lee-Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power… allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”

It has been three months since President Obama sent his proposal for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” focused on ISIS to Capitol Hill. It has gone nowhere.

This is mind-boggling. On the most important question government faces—military intervention overseas—Congress seems unable to stir itself to hammer out an agreement with the President. You can blame the President for this or you can blame Congress—each side comes in for its fair share—but inaction only expands the power of the President, leaving him to make hugely consequential decisions by himself. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill.

This is going to be a long and difficult conflict. It raises tough questions about the scope of the President’s powers, the duration of those powers, the definition and identity of the enemy, the extent of the field of battle, and America’s fundamental role in the world. The decision to apply American lives and resources to such a war is momentous, and, as a country, we need to know how far we’re willing to commit ourselves.

If we are going to send U.S. forces into dangerous places, they need to go in with the public backing that comes from a formal authorization hammered out in Congress. Both the President and Congress are dragging their feet on this, but that only helps the President, not the country. It leaves him—and most likely his successor—with dangerously broad authority to use military force without restriction, in perpetuity. This is not how a democracy like ours should operate.

The American people are beginning to understand all this. They overwhelmingly believe that Congress needs to weigh in on the government’s war-making powers. Yet, that seems to mean nothing to Washington. “Cowardly and shameful,” Sen. Kaine said. That pretty much sums it up.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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Business owners: fix your potholes

 

I would like to suggest to local business owners and managers that they get together and do something about the potholes in their parking lots before they lose a lot of business. Menards happens to have pothole patch on sale this week! Only $9.99 for a 50 lb bag. I’m sure you can find something similar locally if driving to Grand Rapids is an inconvenience. I know some of my friends are avoiding some businesses completely for fear of damaging their cars. If you are waiting for the property owner to take care of it, you might be in for a long wait unfortunately.

Helen Hoornstra, City of Cedar Springs

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The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day

 

By Maj. Nicholas J. Sabula, Defense Media Activity

Fort George G. Meade, Md. (AFNS)—There are lots of reminders out there that Memorial Day is about more than a day off or barbecue. It’s also about more than thanking everyone who served or waving flags. The truth is, many people confuse this day with Veterans Day.

This day is about one thing—our fallen warriors.

Congress officially set Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. How ironic that we mark the start of our summer season of fun with the day devoted to the memory of those who perished in the fight for the principles of freedom.

Why is Memorial Day so important? Here are some thoughts:

One thing I think people tend to gloss over with this day—these people died for freedom. While the semantics of how they died, why they died or where they died can become blurred by those seeking to minimize their sacrifice, the reality is that they died in serving the very country that allows for freedoms to belittle these heroes.

They gave of themselves, paying the ultimate sacrifice. This is the day for a grateful nation to remember their service and what it represented.

I think of the power in the memories we hold to the actions taken that were long forgotten by others.

I think of Marine Corps Maj. Megan McClung, who died while serving in Iraq. She embodied her personal catch-phrase of “Be bold, be brief, be gone.”

I think of our Medal of Honor recipients, who all remind us that the recognition is not for them, but for their comrades who are no longer with us.

The greatest honor we can bestow is remembering their gift. For me, experiences have shaped how meaningful the day is.

Long, long ago, I served as a member of the honor guard, covering a three-state region of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Our team was incredible in the manner in which we would drive for hours to the location, then suddenly put our game face on in preparation for a funeral. Except it wasn’t a game to us.

The crisp folds in our nation’s flag, the sharp salute and presentation to the family on behalf of a grateful nation, and the 21-gun salute that shattered the silence was only shared with sobs and strong hearts during that instance.

We honored their passing; but also gave reverence to their important honorable service to this nation.

Though the M-1 Garand rifle was heavy and the snow would be knee-deep at certain locations, we never lost cadence, never lost focus. Whether a bitter -40 degrees or a sweltering 100 degrees, they would become part of this day we now hold as a federal holiday.

Since then, I have been shaped by additional experiences of loss. Whether saluting a hero’s flag-draped coffin as it’s carried onto a C-17 Globemaster III for their journey home, or experiencing the grief of learning of the loss of colleagues, it’s never easy when it hits you.

It really struck home about four and a half years ago, while in Afghanistan.

I’m not going to go into the details, but I will say that personally witnessing the death of a comrade when there’s nothing you could do stays with you forever. I don’t talk about it much, but it’s why the day is so important to me.

This day is for them and for those who served among them. For me, this day is also a time to reflect on all the sacrifice our military family as a whole has made.

Sgt. 1st Class Shannon’s family back home will never be the same; they are now a Gold Star family. His Army unit felt his loss. While our military and our country continue on, Memorial Day is a reminder that he and all the heroes we have lost mattered.

Service and sacrifice. This is my day to reflect on those I’ve encountered and those I never will. This is a day to simply remember.

This article was originally published on May 23, 2014, at www.af.mil.

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The Way Forward for Congress 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

There have been encouraging signs on Capitol Hill of late that Congress’s long slide into irrelevance may be slowing.

Agreements on Medicare reimbursements and on Iran, No Child Left Behind, Pacific trade and other issues in various committees led last month to a chorus of relieved approval both in Washington and in the press. Just as important, the amendment process—at least in the Senate—is once again functioning as it’s supposed to.

But let’s not go overboard. Major challenges lie immediately ahead, chief among them how Congress handles the budget. If Congress finds that it likes feeling productive, then I’ve got some suggestions for turning these first, tentative steps into full-blown progress.

First, it needs to remember that our founders placed Congress first in the constitutional firmament. It has been far too timid. As has been noted, “Congress today is a reactive body, taking its cues from the President: sometimes in deference to him, sometimes in opposition to him, occasionally in agreement with him—but always in reference to him.” That’s not the definition of a co-equal branch of government.

Second, Congress needs to return to good process. This is not a panacea, but it enhances the prospect of getting things right. Returning in both houses to the so-called “regular order” of committee hearings and amendments would do wonders for restoring transparency, encouraging fact-finding, hearing all sides, weighing options, and finding agreement.

Third, members need to understand that their conduct has a direct impact on Americans’ trust in Congress. Too many have a constricted view of what it means to serve. They understand their responsibility to represent their constituents, but apparently feel little or no responsibility to get legislation enacted into law or to make the country work. This approach fails the ultimate test of the legislative process, which is to find remedies to the nation’s challenges.

Finally, Congress should heed the lesson of these past few months and re-energize its commitment to negotiation and compromise. There’s room in politics for elected leaders who do not back down on their principles, but these politicians can’t be allowed to dominate the process. If they do, the legislative process deadlocks and representative government becomes impossible. Skillful legislators know how to honor their firmly held principles while still finding common ground.

The progress we’ve seen of late on Capitol Hill is proof that these legislators exist. May their ranks increase.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Money and Politics: We Need Change Now!

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

I’ve seen a lot over my decades in politics, and not much alarms me. But I have to be blunt: Money is poisoning our political system.

The people who matter most to a representative democracy—the ordinary voters in whose interests elected politicians are supposed to act—feel they’ve become an afterthought in the political process. The tidal wave of money washing over our elections, with no end in sight, is causing Americans to lose faith in the system.

Oddly, many politicians see no problem. They don’t believe that they’re selling their votes, or even that money influences their behavior.

While it is a rare member of Congress who would change his or her vote because of money, there is ample evidence that when donors contribute heavily, they have a disproportionate influence over the legislator; that’s not “corruption,” but it means that the opinions of average citizens are diminished when it comes to policy-making.

Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions over the last half-decade, we’ve seen a surge in campaign spending that is beyond the ability of journalists and regulators to track. This money purchases attack ads that saturate the airwaves with scant clue as to who is funding them. And, it pushes our politics toward the extremes, emphasizing ideological purity, unremitting partisanship, and a political culture that exalts confrontation over consensus building. In other words, it cripples representative democracy.

So what can we do? The first priority is to find ways of boosting prompt financial disclosure—to trace the source of campaign spending on behalf of candidates and incumbents before an election so that voters know who is supporting whom, and can match candidates’ positions on issues with the interests of their financial backers. Disclosure done after elections is meaningless.

The second major reform is to make public funds available for financing campaigns, thus amplifying the contributions of ordinary Americans, freeing candidates to spend more time on substance rather than fundraising, and letting them engage more fully with voters rather than donors.

The odds of action are not encouraging. Yet, I’m heartened by something Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters in New Hampshire the other day. “You’re going to have money dumped in this election cycle that’s going to turn off the American people,” he said. “There’s going to be a need and a movement to try to control the money in politics.” Let’s hope he’s right.

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New study analyzes impact of Proposal 1 on taxpayers

 

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy published a new analysis of Proposal 1, which voters will be asked to approve or reject on May 5. The proposal increases taxes by $2 billion and aims to dedicate most of that revenue for future road construction and maintenance. In addition to reviewing the proposed constitutional and legislative changes, this new study estimates how Proposal 1 would impact the typical Michigan household.

James Hohman, author of the study and assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center, used data from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate that Proposal 1 would increase the tax burden of the typical Michigan household by about $500 in 2016.

“These estimates rely on assumptions about the average price of gasoline and other factors, but they’re about as close as one can get to figuring out about how much taxpayers would pay if voters approve of this plan to increase funding for roads,” Hohman said.

Proposal 1 would make four changes to the Michigan Constitution: increasing the allowable sales tax rate to 7 percent, exempting fuel purchases from sales and use taxes, prohibiting public universities from receiving revenue from the School Aid Fund and earmarking a portion of use tax revenue for the School Aid Fund.

These changes are “tie-barred” with eight legislative bills that will go into effect if voters approve of Proposal 1. These laws would hike the sales and use tax to 7 percent, create a new wholesale fuel tax of 41.7 cents per gallon and earmark this revenue for roads, increase the state’s earned income tax credit, boost spending on one public school program and create new rules pertaining to road construction projects for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Regarding the proposed wholesale tax on fuel, it is likely that prices at the pump for gasoline consumers will be higher if Proposal 1 passes. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average national gasoline price in 2015 will be $2.39. At this rate, consumers would pay about 10 cents more per gallon in taxes at the pump.

“The difference between the proposed gas tax and the current one depends a lot on the price of gasoline. But only when gasoline prices exceed $4.20 per gallon will consumers start to pay less at the pump under Proposal 1,” Hohman added.

The analysis found that the proposed new wholesale fuel tax will increase at a rate that will outpace inflation. The mechanics of the formula prescribed in the law to adjust the tax rate based on inflation ensures that the rate will grow faster than inflation.

“The way the fuel tax formula is designed, taxpayers can expect to see fuel taxation rates rise faster than inflation,” Hohman said.

Even though the earned income tax credit would be increased under Proposal 1 (from 6 percent of the federal EITC amount to 20 percent), low-income households in Michigan may not experience much of a tax benefit overall.

“The average EITC recipient’s tax burden will likely be reduced slightly if Proposal 1 passes, but there will be EITC recipients whose overall tax burden will still rise,” said Hohman.

The full study can be found online here: www.mackinac.org/21128

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions. The Mackinac Center assists policy makers, scholars, business people, the media and the public by providing objective analysis of Michigan issues.

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Congress and the President need to consult and not just on Iran 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

Congress has developed a fondness for open letters when it comes to Iran. First came the warning shot signed by 47 Republican senators that touched off a storm of criticism. Not to be outdone, the House checked in with its own bipartisan and more diplomatically stated letter to the President, warning that its members must be satisfied with any agreement before they’ll vote to reduce sanctions.

What lies behind these moves? I think Congress feels left out of foreign policy-making.

I have considerable sympathy for this impulse. Over the decades, too much power has drifted to the President when it comes to foreign affairs. The Congress has been deferential, even timid, in allowing this to happen. And the President has not done a sufficient job of consulting with Congress.

Yet much as I want to see Congress speak up on foreign policy, how it does so matters. The Senate’s letter to Iran was ill-considered and unhelpful. Its purpose was to defeat the nuclear negotiations, and it undercut the President while he was trying to negotiate a deal with another world leader.

The letter did focus appropriately on presidential use of executive orders to conduct foreign policy, but it wrongly suggested that an executive order on Iran is likely to be reversed by a future president. Presidential deals with other countries are rarely overturned by their successors.

Yet the fact that a president can act on his own does not mean that he should do so. The reliance on executive orders means we have no clear mechanism, or even requirement, for the President to consult and work with Congress on foreign policy. And that’s crucial. The President and the Congress need to consult regularly and in depth before problems come to a head. Sustained and respectful consultation would go a long way toward avoiding the acrimonious contention over foreign policy that we’ve seen of late.

Congress’s bid to reopen this question is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But if the President and the Congress want to avoid these flare-ups and strengthen the nation’s foreign policy, they should exercise in-depth, sustained consultation.

Lee Hamilton is Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999. As a public service, Hamilton writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better.

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