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Archive | Voices and Views

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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Governing by crisis isn’t governing at all 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

sw-riconcMichigan Liquor Control Commission waives fees for virtual copies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spring into a stress-free retirement

 

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EarthTalk®

E – The Environmental Magazine

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

  — Justin Brockway, Los Angeles, CA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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