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To improve, Congress needs to look inward

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

There are a lot of reasons why Congress finds itself hamstrung in Washington and discounted by the people it serves at home. But in the end, the demons Congress has to fight are its own. If it is to return to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion, the paths it must follow start on and wind through Capitol Hill.

For starters, Congress has gotten into some terrible legislative habits. The worst is the omnibus bill, which is emblematic of the deeply rooted issues Congress faces. These bills are thousands of pages long and they bypass pretty much the entire legislative process.

Good process is not about efficiency. It’s about bolstering your chances of getting things right. And that means handing authority back to individual members and to the committees so that what comes out of Congress can benefit from the creativity and insights of a wide range of talented politicians.

This step, however, requires another: Congress has to spend more time legislating. Its members work very hard, but not at legislating. Yet if the political and legislative process is a search for remedies to our nation’s problems, then it needs care and attention. Building expertise and finding consensus—even within one’s own party—takes patience, skill, perseverance…and a lot of time.

And honestly, if members of Congress can’t make the time to re-energize the practice of negotiation and compromise, then what hope is there? The definition of being a responsible lawmaker is to deal with divisions and to move the country forward anyway. Otherwise, each side just sits in its corner and maneuvers to beat the other at the next election and we, as a nation, spin in circles.

Finally, Congress needs to spend far more of its energy looking over the executive branch. The current hearings on the Mueller report highlight what’s been lacking: this kind of attention should be paid to every nook and cranny of government.

The point of all this is that without a functional Congress, we don’t have a functional representative democracy. I don’t expect all these things I’ve mentioned to be resolved easily or quickly. But I want to see Congress again become an institution we can be confident is playing a constructive role in our democracy. And until it gets its house in order, I don’t see how that will happen.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Washington shouldn’t play games with senior care

As an 83-year old retired teacher with a bad gut and a bad heart, I count on Michigan’s elected officials to stand up for Medicare. Instead, Congress is stalling on two critical bills (H.R. 1398 and S. 172) that would suspend the Health Insurance Tax (HIT) and stop Medicare Advantage premiums from rising nearly $250 annually per senior. Unless Rep. Moolenar and Senators Stabenow and Peters step up, seniors like me will have to make hard choices between health insurance and other needs. Washington needs to understand that senior health care isn’t a game.

Richard Jackson – Sand Lake, MI

Member, Better Medicare Alliance Protect Our Care Senior Task Force

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What would make Congress better?

By Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman

Lee Hamilton

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a group of students and decided to start with a point-blank question: Is Congress doing a good job? There were perhaps 100 people in the room, and not a single one raised his or her hand.

So I asked the question a different way: Is Congress nearly or completely dysfunctional? Most hands went up.

These were not experts, of course. They were simply reflecting a broad public consensus that things are not working well on Capitol Hill. But they weren’t wrong, either. Things aren’t working well on Capitol Hill.

I can tick off the problems, and so can you. Congress doesn’t follow good process. It seems to have lost the ability to legislate. It’s too polarized and partisan. It’s dominated by political gameplaying, and by the undue influence of money. It defers too readily to the president. Routine matters get bottled up. Its output is low, and it simply cannot pass a budget on time.

“What are the paths that will lead Congress back to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion?”—Lee Hamilton

In fact, there’s a lot it can’t get done: It can’t repair or replace Obamacare, it can’t take action on climate change, it can’t find its way to the grand bargain on fiscal reform that everyone wants, it can’t develop an education policy, it’s unable to address our cyber-security needs, strengthen gun laws, or mitigate extreme inequality.

To be sure, there are things that members of Congress do pretty well. They serve their constituents and are superb at reflecting their constituents’ views. Most are accessible, they understand what their constituents want, they’re adept at aligning themselves with their home districts or states and equally skilled at separating themselves from Congress as a whole. They know how to make themselves look good and the institution they serve look bad.

They’re also people of integrity and talent who want to advance the national interest as they understand it. They’re willing to work exhausting hours in an agitated, dysfunctional political environment. It’s frustrating to look out over Congress and see so many talented, well-meaning people who struggle to make the institution work well.

So what should they do, then? What are the paths that will lead Congress back to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion?

First, it needs to step up to its constitutional responsibilities. The Founders placed Congress first in the Constitution for a reason: it’s not just a co-equal branch, it’s the branch that most thoroughly represents the will and desires of the American people. Yet over the years Congress has kept ceding power to the president.

The Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to declare war, yet military intervention is now the president’s choice. Congress — and the House specifically — is supposed to take the initiative in producing a budget, but it’s been many years since it exercised that power. Instead, the president submits a budget and Congress reacts.

Up and down the line, in fact, the president sets the agenda and then Congress responds to his proposals. It’s pretty hard to identify a congressional initiative within recent memory.

And it doesn’t just defer to the president. Congress leaves regulatory decisions to federal agencies, with very little oversight. It yields economic power to the Federal Reserve. It’s allowed the Supreme Court to become a central policy-making body on issues from campaign finance to affirmative action to environmental regulation.

And though recent stirrings of independence among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are heartening, they’re just that: stirrings. It hasn’t come close to being a co-equal branch of government for a long time. So the first step toward reforming itself is to determine to become one.

In order to do so, however, it needs to attend to some serious internal housekeeping, from rehabilitating the way it goes about legislating to restoring the bedrock principles of good legislating, including negotiation and compromise. In my next commentary, I’ll address those needs in greater detail.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Post Scripts

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 Post Scripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

Agrees with apology

I’m writing to echo the apology written by the Rev. Kim DeLong that appeared in Postscripts on March 21. As an observer at the United Methodist Special General Conference held February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, I found myself embarrassed and sad. While a vast majority of delegates who live within the United States favored regional and local decision-making with regard to ordination and marriage, 80% of the delegates from outside the US denied this perogative. As we often say in the United Methodist Church, “context, context, context.” In my opinion, the outcome of the General Conference vote resulted from a combination of an uncompromising interpretation of scripture, and an arrogance that is uncharacteristic of one of the best features of United Methodism – our willingness to “live and let live” in matters non-essential. Most United Methodists agree that there is no uniformity among the seven or so passages of scripture that have been used in the last couple hundred years to de-humanize homosexuals. Rev. DeLong rightly describes United Methodism as a denomination founded on a rich tradition derived from looking at human life through the lens of grace. As a General Conference, we betrayed a history of social justice and holiness and we did indeed limit grace. The Conference elected to place a millstone around the neck of thousands of sisters and brothers created in God’s image who merely desire the experience of full humanity the rest of us enjoy. 

The future of the denomination remains uncertain; what is certain is that where there is death, there is resurrection. This week of all weeks, that is our hope.

Rev. Bill Johnson

Cedar Springs United Methodist Church

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How politics have changed

Lee H. Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman

I became active in politics in the late 1950s, got elected to Congress in 1964, and have remained engaged in one way or another every year since then. So I suppose I should not be surprised that I get asked a lot these days how American politics have changed over the last six decades.

A few things stand out. When I first arrived in Congress, Americans had faith in the institutions of government. President Lyndon Johnson ran on a platform that we could successfully wage a war on poverty — and was elected. It seems inconceivable now that a politician would be so bold and so naïve as to propose such a thing. Americans today have little confidence in government’s ability to deliver.

The second big difference is the extreme political intensity we see all around us. Almost every facet of politics is more complicated and pursued more vigorously, with a harder edge to it, than when I began. Politics has shifted from low-intensity conflict to big business — and very serious business, at that.

Meanwhile, the sharp polarization that marks our politics today has flourished. We’ve always had partisanship, but today it penetrates everything: the electorate, political parties, legislatures, Congress, and the White House.

Finally, the audience for politics has changed. When you spoke to the Rotary Club in southern Indiana in the 1960s, you were speaking to Rotary members in southern Indiana. Today, you could very well be speaking to the world.

This has all made the work of politics and governing more difficult. The basic building blocks of politics—gathering facts, deliberating on next steps, finding common ground—are charged in their own right, subject to partisan attack. Plain and simple, it’s become harder to make the country work.

When I began in politics, elected officials felt a responsibility to find their way through difficult problems together. They believed that compromise and negotiation were core political values, intrinsic to our democracy and crucial to making it work for everyone.

There are still plenty of politicians who believe this—but also plenty who do not, who have shown they can thrive in a political environment that stacks the deck against the shared work of finding common ground.

We’ve come a long way as a country over the last six decades. But when it comes to politics as a democratic endeavor to address the nation’s challenges? We’ve lost ground.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Beware false info on petition

I was asked to sign a petition on Monday, so I took a look at it. It is a petition created by Gary Johnson, the former Solon Township supervisor that was recalled back in 2004. The petition is to “allow” high-density housing into Solon Township, which we already do. The person presenting the petition to me first told me that Solon Township was preventing building in the Township. I told him that was not true. The township was not preventing building but was slowing growth somewhat, looking towards better planning and requiring public sewer and water in high-density areas. He then asked if I wanted to sign the petition so that I could vote! I told him if it was on the ballot I could vote regardless of whether I signed his petition or not and I did not sign his petition. 

I would ask that no one sign the petition until you have all the facts. The township planning commission has studied the options and held public hearings on it and also voted to send it to the Township board for approval and the board approved it. It’s all part of the master plan. If this becomes a ballot question I would also ask that the voters of the Township stand with the Township Board and the planning commission.

Robert Ellick

Solon Township Supervisor

2004 to present

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UMC conference did not limit grace

I would like to address the “apology” from Kim DeLong.

Jesus did not condone sin but forgave the sinner. He did not condemn but did tell them to sin no more. That applies to all of us. Couples should not be living together or having children together out of wedlock. It destroys the family that God designed. Men and women should not be defiling their own bodies. The Church either stands on the Word of God or it does not!  

God welcomes all people. He whispers our name. He calls us unto Himself. He doesn’t say we need to be perfect—just the opposite. He calls us to make us completely whole. We need only to answer.

Unfortunately, in Rev. Kim DeLong’s letter, she stated that the United Methodist General Conference voted to limit Grace. So untrue. God’s grace is unending and open to all who answer His call and seek Him.  

We, as Christians, are called to love one another, care for those in need, and help the widows and children. His teaching does not ask us to accept any sexual sin or perversions or unions He did not design.

The future our God sees for us may not be the future we see for ourselves. His way is always right. His love is complete. Jesus shed his blood for our sins. I will not apologize for Gods truth.  

We are not to convert God’s word to our thoughts but rather we are to conform to God’s thoughts.

He asks for our obedience. So if we must apologize, it is us who needs to apologize to God and ask for His forgiveness. No distortion of God’s truth makes wrong right!

Judy Matzen, Sand Lake

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Political and policy skills are merging

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government

Here’s a surprise: the skills that can be used to win in politics are increasingly the skills needed to produce good policy. Let me explain.

Politicians running for office have a choice. They can appeal to their base and count on it pushing them over the top. Or they can try to build a coalition of voters.

The former gives us more politicians who don’t show much interest in crafting broadly acceptable policy. But if they choose instead to run their campaigns by reaching out to a broader swath of the electorate, and if we as voters reward them for this at the polls, then they come to Washington with exactly the skills needed to make our representative democracy work.

We live in a time of great polarization and declining trust: in politicians, in institutions, in one another. Our representative democracy is in stress, if not in peril.

We need to return to our traditional approach: coalition-building across diverse groups of people. We succeed in politics and in governing the country by building a broad base of support that appeals to a wide sector of American society.

This means rejecting partisan hostility, and being willing to work across the aisle. It means rejecting the attitude that the most important thing is for my tribe to win. It means including all people in the public dialogue and dealing with them with respect.

It means rejecting authoritarianism and assaults on our fundamental institutions: the courts, Congress, law enforcement, the media — all the institutions democracy depends upon.

By working within the framework where majorities of Americans find themselves—in support of fair taxation, free markets, and free trade, providing opportunity for all, preventing the rise of inequality, in support of limited immigration, in support of mainstream views on freedom of choice, in support of policies to address climate change, in support of the social safety net – there’s plenty of ground for agreement.

So the good news is that you can put together both a winning political campaign and a successful policy drive by speaking straightforwardly to the issues Americans care about, and by understanding where people’s points of commonality lie.

This takes a politician’s skill at its most basic: building consensus behind a solution to a problem. Only then can we fix the many problems the country faces.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Accountability makes good government

By Lee H. Hamilton

As various House committees gear up for a season of investigations and hearings on President Trump and his administration, a lot of people worry that progress on the nation’s challenges will grind to a halt. I would argue just the opposite: the wheels of government are turning in favor of accountability.

Lee Hamilton

Our system rests squarely on the notion that government officials—whether elected or appointed—need to be accountable to the people they govern. They are responsible for their behavior, their decisions, and the policies they support.

Which is why the weakening of accountability in our system over the past few decades ought to worry all Americans. It has become very difficult, for instance, to question a president—a problem that preceded the current occupant of the White House. Presidential press conferences, which once were free-wheeling affairs at which presidents faced sustained questioning from reporters well-versed in their policies, are barely held these days.

Politicians and bureaucrats at all levels have become quite skilled at avoiding accountability. And though several national news outlets have stepped up their scrutiny of public officials in Washington, overall there is less investigative journalism than there once was.

Which raises another issue. A lot of players ought to be exercising oversight: members of Congress, the government’s inspectors general, the media — we even have an agency, the Government Accountability Office, dedicated to the task. But for them to do their work, the system needs transparency. Almost every day you see signs of officials hiding what they do from the public — often without merit.

The problem with this, of course, is that it’s anti-democratic. How are we supposed to make reasoned decisions about who and what we want to see in our government if we don’t know what’s going on and who’s responsible for it?

Perhaps the most famous hallmark of Harry Truman’s tenure as president was the motto he placed on his desk: “The buck stops here.” There’s a reason why people still consider it a standard they wish other politicians would set for themselves. Americans want officials who will take responsibility for their decisions.

They want political leaders to hold themselves accountable to the public. And they want to see public officials exercise the responsibility handed them by the Constitution to hold others accountable. That the House is moving to do so is not a detour from governing; it’s the essence of good government.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a 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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Pastor apologizes for denomination’s decision

The editor rejected the following “From the Pulpit” article because it didn’t offer “hope and healing” (the guidelines for that venue) to everyone. 

I want to apologize to the LGBTQIA+ community for the harm my denomination has caused you. You have likely seen the headlines regarding the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. The General Conference voted to affirm and strengthen the current language in our Book of Discipline which states that all persons are of “sacred worth,” but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Many United Methodists disagree with this decision, including me. I’m sorry that one more act of harm has been added to the mountain you have already endured. 

During Lent, the current Christian season we are celebrating, Christians strive for a deeper connection with God because we recognize that we are flawed human beings. Each one of us needs forgiveness and mercy and grace—so much grace.

The irony is that grace is the defining tenet of Methodist belief. We believe God’s grace pursues and surrounds us throughout our lives, and comes to us most profoundly in Jesus. Grace leads us to the reality of God’s love for us in Jesus. Grace convicts us of that reality, and grace grows our relationship with Jesus. Grace is available to each and every person.

So I’m sorry that General Conference voted to limit grace. Know many United Methodists are grieving this decision, and are working to find a solution.  Undoubtedly, our denomination will split. A significant number of United Methodists are working to birth a New Methodism which will offer grace to all persons.

Each and every person is beloved of God. None can earn God’s love. That’s called grace. May each and every one of you know that grace every day.

Rev. Kim DeLong

Courtland Oakfield United Methodist Church

10295 Myers Lake Ave N.E.

Rockford, MI  49341

Editor note: Rev. DeLong’s letter expresses her own personal opinion. She is not speaking on behalf of Courtland-Oakfield UMC.

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