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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? 

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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.

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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 

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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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Note of appreciation

Dear Editor,

I would like to say how much I enjoy the Post. I especially enjoy Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche. It is always interesting, informative, and I can learn new things every week. His knowledge of the natural world is outstanding.

 

Sincerely,

Joyce Hosmer, Howard City


Post Scripts 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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Looking forward by looking back 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

With the 114th Congress just underway, the political world is focused intently on the road ahead. Taxes, trade, immigration, climate change, job creation, the Affordable Care Act—there’s a long list of issues and one burning question: whether a Republican Congress and a Democratic President can find common ground.

Yet before we get worked up about what’s to come, we need to take a hard look at the Congress that just ended and ask a different question: Why was it such an abject failure?

Let’s start with a basic number. According to the Library of Congress, 296 bills were passed by the 113th Congress and signed by the President. Just for comparison’s sake, the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947-48 got 906 bills through. The Financial Times called this most recent version “the least productive Congress in modern U.S. history.”

Congress failed most spectacularly on the basics. Not one of the dozen annual appropriations bills passed, while the budget resolution, which is supposed to set overall fiscal policy, never even got to a vote.

When Congress did legislate, it did so in the worst possible way—by using an “omnibus” spending bill into which it crammed everything it could manage. Congress’s reliance on omnibus bills, which are written in secret, violates every rule of good legislative process and denies transparency and accountability. It allows Capitol Hill to curry favor with all sorts of special interests and forces—or allows—members to vote for provisions that would have had very little chance of surviving on their own.

The last Congress maintained one other lamentable trend: it took “oversight” to mean injecting its investigations with partisanship—Benghazi, the IRS’s examination of conservative groups, the VA’s mishandling of health care for veterans—while forgetting the crucial, ongoing oversight of government. It allowed itself to be co-opted by the intelligence community, which persuaded Congress to neglect a public debate on massive surveillance, hacked the Senate’s computers, and misled Congress about the nature and extent of torture.

The congressional leadership is now under pressure to show Americans that they can be successful. Let’s hope they consider “success” to include avoiding the bad habits of the past, by paying more attention to their constituents than to special interests; enforcing their own ethics rules more vigorously; and most of all, allowing the full debate and votes Congress needs to serve as a true coequal branch of government.

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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Misuse of power?

 

 

An alleged violation of the Election Campaign Finance Law against the City by Mark Laws was thrown out by the State of Michigan but not until it cost taxpayers $5,020.00.

 

Council Members Dan Clark and Bob Truesdale’s October lawsuit against the city has cost taxpayers $6,372.00 to date with additional costs to come.

 

At December’s council meeting, Mr. Clark read a second statement, again outlining what it would take for he and Mr. Truesdale to drop the action. Along with other requirements they are demanding taxpayers foot the bill for their attorney fees to the tune of over $7500.00! Folks, that is $13, 872.00 and counting for that petty allegation alone. In  Clark’s statement he states, “It should be restated that the feelings of the plaintiffs (Clark and Truesdale) are that the then sitting Council members are in no way responsible for the non-compliance with the Open Meetings Act requirements for a closed session.  Neither do the plaintiffs feel that legal council intentionally misused the ‘written legal opinion’ exemption as the basis for the closed session. However, the feelings of the plaintiffs are that the closed session to hear the information from attorney Sluggett and discuss the terms of the city manager’s new contract should have been kept in an open meeting.”

So, if they don’t believe council members or legal council are responsible and didn’t intentionally misuse the exemption as the basis for the closed session, why did they sue themselves and the council instead of working it out? These men clearly do not understand their roles as council members. To date they have cost taxpaying citizens over $12,831.50, which includes costs for the original allegation in the disciplining of Council Member Truesdale. If council caves to their demands, that total goes to $20,331.50-plus, unless they end the lawsuit now without conditions.

The original investigation into wrongdoing needs to go forward as the cost will be nothing to taxpayers and could very well exonerate past council members. The present council would be well advised to refuse to cave in to Clark and Truesdale’s demands, as taxpayers should not cover the legal costs for their senseless complaints.

 

Kathryn A. Bremmer, Cedar Springs

 

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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Now it’s time to focus on growing the economy

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

Recent economic news has been broadly reassuring. Retail sales are strong, November saw the best job gains in three years, the federal deficit is shrinking, the stock market is robust, and the Fed is expressing enough faith in the economy that an interest rate bump next year is considered a certainty.

Yet the public remains unconvinced. This is partly because perceptions haven’t caught up to reality. For many middle- and lower-class families, economic circumstances have not changed very much.

Strong numbers do, however, offer one unambiguous piece of good news: The pressure on policy makers to focus on near-term or immediate problems has eased, which means they can now focus on the fundamental question of economic growth. As Princeton economist Alan Blinder, political strategist Al From and others have pointed out, now is the time for policy-makers to concentrate on creating the environment in the country for sustained, non-inflationary economic growth.

To begin with, we have a chance to get our fiscal house in order and pursue long-term deficit reduction. This means modernizing entitlement spending and shaping a tax-reform package that focuses on investments to boost productivity and help the economy to grow for everyone. It also means eliminating public subsidies to individual enterprises—that money can better be spent on boosting the economic skills of ordinary Americans through education and training.

There are other steps government policy-makers can take to improve broad economic growth. We need to expand trade through open markets and simplify the regulatory structure so that it protects Americans without burdening companies beyond reason. And we must address our nation’s deferred infrastructure needs, which hinder the smooth functioning of every business that relies on transporting its goods.

The same applies to reforming government itself. A government that does not work well—that wastes money, fails its regulatory responsibilities, and cannot make timely decisions—undermines economic growth. Finally, policy-makers need to remember that economic growth means providing a ladder out of poverty for the truly needy. Providing opportunity for low-income Americans through the Earned Income Tax Credit and programs to upgrade their skills is vital. No one who works full time should be poor in this country.

Free, competitive markets are the best way to deliver goods and services to Americans. Government must not get in the way of that system. Nor should it stand idle. The right response by government to our economic challenges is not to focus on the immediate economic problems of the day, but to invest in economic growth for all.

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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Where’s the full story?

 

Dear Editor,

Referring to the article on page 3 of last week’s C.S. Post: Fourteen paragraphs without one word in defense of those previous council members who had worked hard to do their best and had their reputations put to question while being publically disdained, without having yet received an unbiased report from our local newspaper? Seems to me the full story has not yet been presented in the Post for people to be able to hear all sides. My opinion.

 

Registered Voter,

Sharon Magoon, Cedar Springs

 

Post Scripts 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. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to PostScripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

 

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