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Archive | Voices and Views

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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Social Security questions and answers

 

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

Question: I’ve only been working for a few years, and I’m wondering how I earn Social Security benefits. What are credits and how many do I need to qualify for benefits?

Answer: We use your total yearly earnings to calculate your Social Security credits. “Credits” are the units we use to measure whether you qualify for Social Security benefits. The amount needed for a credit in 2015 is $1,220. You can earn a maximum of four credits for any year. The amount needed to earn one credit increases automatically each year when average wages increase.

You must earn a certain number of credits to qualify for Social Security benefits. The number of credits you need depends on your age when you apply and the type of benefit for which you are applying. No one needs more than 40 credits for any Social Security benefit. You can learn more about earning credits by reading How You Earn Credits at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs.

Question: I’m planning my retirement. What is the maximum Social Security benefit I might receive?

Answer: The maximum benefit depends on the age you retire and how much you earned in your lifetime. For example, if you retire at age 62 in 2015, your maximum benefit will be $2,025. If you retire at full retirement age in 2015, your maximum benefit will be $2,663. If you retire at age 70 in 2015, your maximum benefit will be $3,501. You can estimate your benefits by using our Retirement Estimator at www.socialsecurity.gov/estimator.

Question: I’m retired, and the only income I have aside from my Social Security retirement benefit is from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Are my IRA withdrawals considered “earnings?” Could they reduce my monthly Social Security benefits?

Answer: No. We do not count non-work income, such as annuities, investment income, interest, capital gains, and other government benefits, and they will not affect your Social Security benefits. Most pensions will not affect your benefits. However, your benefit may be affected by a government pension from work on which you did not pay Social Security tax. If you have wages or self-employment income and you are under your full retirement age, this income may affect your benefit amount. For more information, visit our website at www.socialsecurity.gov or call us toll free at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

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Enjoyed April Fools paper

 

Dear Editor,

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed last week’s [the March 26] paper. I was so bummed when I read the front page about the Post turning shopper. Then I got a good laugh at the article—love the professional kite flying comments and the “no profits” line. The article was great!

Kay Ransom

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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Learning to Be a Citizen 

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

The question usually comes toward the end of a public meeting. Some knotty problem is being discussed, and someone in the audience will raise his or her hand and ask, “Okay, so what can I do about it?”

I love that question. Not because I’ve ever answered it to my satisfaction, but because it bespeaks such a constructive outlook.

The usual advice that politicians give is to vote, work for a candidate, let your elected officials know what you think, and participate in community life. This is good counsel—but only as far as it goes. With a little more time now to answer the question, I’d add a few other points.

First, it’s important that citizens appreciate how hard it is to solve problems in a representative democracy. Every issue—even a stop sign at a corner—is more complex than it appears. Understanding and appreciating the complexities is the only way to see how and where you can make progress.

It’s also vital to learn that solving problems means working with all kinds of people. It requires bringing different points of view together, developing connections to key players in your community, talking face-to-face with others who may not agree with you, and communicating your ideas effectively, including to the media. It also means learning that differences can exist without personal animosity, and recognizing the common ground on which you can build agreement.

There is a key lesson that comes from trying to solve a particular problem: it tends to make you less ideological and more pragmatic. It forces you to examine the options in front of you and to figure out what resources are at hand to help you pursue them.

Politics is not a game for everyone, but there are other ways to be involved in community life. Regardless of the avenue they choose, it’s the people who step forward who refresh this country and make it stronger.

Our Constitution’s preamble begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….” At heart, that’s what getting involved means: shouldering the challenges, shared responsibilities, and opportunities that democracy thrusts upon us as we pursue a more perfect union. That’s what I want to say to the people who ask, “What can I do about it?” The journey is hard and complicated, but it’s the most satisfying work I can imagine.

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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