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What our country needs from the press

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.

This investigative piece was notable for two reasons. It’s been a while since anews story so quickly provoked such a storm of public indignation that a cabinet secretary—deservedly or not—had no choice but to resign. And it’s a reminder of just how important old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting remains to our system of government, especially when it uncovers official misdoing.

One of the basic truths about our representative democracy is that it does not work without solid information. Public officials, both elected and appointed, need to know what’s happening in the communities they serve, and the people who live in those communities need to know what the government they elect and fund is doing in their name.

A lot of forces try to distort that flow of information, or even block it altogether—from officials who aren’t living up to our expectations to politicians counting on public ignorance to lobbyists and advocates hoping to sway public opinion. This is why the press—and by this I mean print, broadcast and online journalists—is so crucial to our country’s health. It is, or ought to be, a steady, dispassionate, truth-seeking, skeptical and tough-minded force for public understanding.

In an ideal world, our media would focus on the serious side of the news. It would explore and highlight the substance of issues, not simply the politics of issues. It would detail the facts underlying a story, rather than dwelling on the personalities at play in the story. There is a place for entertainment that plays off the news—as people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have amply demonstrated—but in their search for an audience, news executives shouldn’t let it become a substitute for dogged reporting and the traditional values of accuracy, truth and fairness.

These are not easy times for journalists, however. I don’t pretend to understand all the forces that are reshaping what we see, hear and read in the news media, and I know that news executives are struggling with a host of formidable economic and social challenges.

These days, only a handful of news organizations in the country have the resources — both human and financial — to spend weeks or months chasing an investigation. Given the cuts that have stripped newsrooms of the expertise they once contained, I sometimes wonder whether the kind of reporting that brought us Watergate and uncovered the Enron scandal could still occur.

Because make no mistake: we need maximum oversight. You and I need it if we’re to be certain that misdeeds cannot hide in the darker corners of government. And Congress needs it if it’s to carry out one of its core responsibilities: overseeing the operations of government. All of us rely on the press to check abuses of power, see that laws are properly implemented, hold officials accountable, and tell those officials when their policies and operations are failing or going astray. Without a strong independent press, those in power could simply tell us what they want us to know and we’d be none the wiser. And that is no state of affairs for a democracy.

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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Get ready for more of the same

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I felt a brief surge of hope a few weeks ago about Congress. It was returning from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, a spending bill to keep the government operating, and maybe even funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, it was brief.

That’s because the talk turned out to be just that. Immigration reform appears headed nowhere. Likewise, tax reform and budgetary discipline. The minimum-wage increase died in the Senate. Shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which could go bankrupt at the end of  summer, requires either massive new spending or a hefty rise in the gasoline tax — and Congress, of course, is inclined to do neither. The one step it appears ready to take is to approve a short-term spending bill, and that’s only because no one in either party wants to risk the public outrage that would attend a government shutdown right before an election.

Sure, with this year’s congressional elections fast approaching, neither party wants to force its members into tough votes. Yet listening to each party in Congress, it’s hard to imagine that they inhabit the same country. And that doesn’t seem likely to change as a result of the mid-term elections.

As a nation, we face a lot of challenges we’re not addressing. Immigration reform, tax reform, trade liberalization, reforming the International Monetary Fund — all need congressional action. So do the nation’s armed services and the Defense Department, which face serious cuts because of sequestration. Climate change isn’t even on the congressional agenda.

Which is why local governments are trying to deal with a global issue by passing zoning laws and ordinances. Indeed, congressional inaction is spurring states to cancel planned summer bridge- and road-repair projects, and big-city mayors to fill the national power vacuum by going ahead with their own minimum-wage measures, tax increases, and other initiatives designed to legislate where Congress won’t.

Here’s my fear. Congress is already derided at home as bumbling and ineffective. The perception abroad is even more worrisome: Capitol Hill’s inability to act is seen as a key piece of America’s decline as a superpower. If we’ve got several more years of drift and dysfunction ahead of us, then the institution that our founders considered to be the keystone of American democracy risks becoming not part of the solution, but the core of the problem.

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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Give your mom some Extra Help

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

 

Mother’s Day is right around the corner. It’s always nice to give Mom a card, flowers or candy, but this year, people all over the country are helping their moms save an estimated $4,000 annually on the cost of Medicare prescription drugs. You can help your mom too—and it won’t cost you a dime.

If your mother has Medicare coverage and has limited income and resources, she may be eligible for Extra Help—available through Social Security—to pay part of her monthly premiums, annual deductibles and prescription co-payments.

To figure out whether your mother is eligible, Social Security needs to know her income and the value of her savings, investments and real estate (other than the home she lives in). To qualify for the Extra Help, she must receive Medicare and have:

Income limited to $17,235 for an individual or $23,265 for a married couple living together. Even if your mom’s annual income is higher, she still may be able to get some help. Some examples where income may be higher include if she and, if married, her spouse:

—Support other family members who live with them;

—Have earnings from work; or

—Live in Alaska or Hawaii.

Resources limited to $13,440 for an individual or $26,860 for a married couple living together. Resources include such things as bank accounts, stocks and bonds. We do not count her house or car as resources.

We have an easy-to-use online application that you can help mom complete. You can find it at www.socialsecurity.gov/prescriptionhelp. To apply by phone or have an application mailed to you, call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) and ask for the Application for Help with Medicare Prescription Drug Plan Costs (SSA-1020).

To learn more about the Medicare prescription drug plans and special enrollment periods, visit www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227; TTY 1-877-486-2048).

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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The Justices and the Scramble for Cash

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

Many trends in American politics and government today make me worry about the health of our representative democracy. These include the decline of Congress as a powerful, coequal branch of government, the accumulation of power in the presidency, and the impact of money on the overall political process.

Recently, the Supreme Court’s five-member majority declared that it’s unconstitutional to limit the aggregate amount an individual can give to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. Campaign contributions amplify free speech, these justices maintain, and campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment: any limit on the ability of individuals to contribute to candidates is a restraint of free speech. The only legitimate cause for the government to step in is to fight blatant, obvious corruption; it should not act to limit access and influence by well-to-do donors. The result of this decision will almost certainly increase the impact of money on the political system.

The Supreme Court decision seems to be insensitive to this. Politicians need large sums to run for office, and they are keenly attuned to generous donors. Inevitably, this gives more political influence to the relative handful of wealthy donors who choose to “invest” in politics, and it dampens the influence of voters who don’t have the financial means to command attention.

What can we do? My preference would be that the President and Congress step in and design rules of campaign finance that would reverse the growing influence of money on our campaigns, but that does not appear likely to happen. Indeed, even as we speak, opponents of campaign finance laws are preparing challenges to the remaining limits on individual contributions and to the easily avoided disclosure laws we already have. I’m certain they’ll get a sympathetic hearing in the Supreme Court.

Paradoxically, this may be our best hope. Because I also believe that Americans are growing tired of the outsized impact that great wealth enjoys in politics, and that a backlash to the Court’s decisions is taking shape. My sense is that growing numbers of ordinary voters are recognizing that money is a poison in our system. I fervently hope that support for public financing and for muscular disclosure laws will grow with time, because our politics will be more democratic, more honest, and more free if we reduce the impact of money on elections.

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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Apology

 

My apologies: It was brought to my attention at the April Council Meeting, that I needed to apologize to others for my private e-mail sent to Patricia Troost, which was read by a citizen of our community at the public forum. I had thought that an earlier e-mail apology to Patricia was received by her in good truth and that my mistake in judgement had been forgiven. It was never my intention that this e-mail would be made public and ultimately involve hurt feelings to those who were mentioned in the e-mail.

Therefore, I am asking that those involved please forgive my mistake in judgement.

 

Bob Truesdale, 

Cedar Springs City Council

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From the editor’s desk

 

By Judy Reed

 

There are still good people around. Just ask Thelma Gould. We had a good conversation last week about how someone made her day. And she doesn’t even know who it was.

Thelma’s husband, Leonard, has had health problems, including cancer, and can’t get out of the house much. “It was the first day he could get out, and we decided to take a trip to the casino for a little fun,” explained Thelma. So she took several rolls of quarters to the bank to cash in. But when she got to the window, she discovered she was short. “I told the teller I thought I had another roll,” she said, “and that I’d probably find it in the car when I had time to look.”

She and Leonard went on to the casino, and didn’t think too much about it. They had a good time, and were just glad to be out.

As it turned out, Thelma found out later that night that someone found the roll of quarters in the bank parking lot and turned it in to the bank. “Who does that?” asked Thelma.

The teller remembered Thelma saying she lost a roll, and it just so happens that Thelma’s granddaughter works there, so she knew how to contact her.

“It was really a joyous day,” remarked Thelma. “It amazed me. Everything worked out so well. I felt really lucky that day, even though we lost (at the casino). But we didn’t have much money to lose,” she said with a chuckle. She said even both of her sons called, who she rarely talks to on the same day. “It was all happiness for me. The good Lord was looking out for me,” she said.

Thelma is grateful to both the teller for remembering her, and the person who turned in the roll of quarters—whomever he or she is. Someone who was unselfish, thinking only of someone else. That’s good people.

 

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Let the people elect our mayor

My condolences to the family of our beloved council person and mayor, Ron Merlington, who had a great big heart for the people of Cedar Springs.

Soon, seven council members will be deciding who your mayor will be for 2015. This means, that only 4 council persons will make that very critical decision. The Michigan Municipal League tells me that our city attorney, at very little cost, could help us rewrite the city charter, so that you, the caring people of our city, would vote to elect the mayor of your choice, every 4 years at the same time we elect our state governor. To me that sounds like a better plan. If you concur, talk to your council persons. My only interest is building a community that is beyond reproach.

Next week see my apology to those who were offended by my personal e-mail to council member Patricia Troost.

 

Bob Truesdale, 

Cedar Springs

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City Council takes a gamble

 

Sometimes governing bodies risk public money in the hope of benefitting the public.  And sometimes city governments use their power to take actions where their authority is questionable. Last Thursday I sat on the council trying to persuade my fellow council members to delay using  public time and resources for what I considered a questionable purpose; an investigation into last July’s alleged Open Meetings Act violations.  Admittedly, the intent of the council was not thoughtless foolishness nor has the amount spent so far been large.  But, depending on the course of the investigation and decisions of the state prosecutor, spent public funds could grow significantly. Secondly, and of even greater concern, these uses of public resources may infringe on voting process integrity. Three members of council were willing to at least put off the investigation to allow time to better understand the City’s position.

We are currently gambling at the one-dollar table, where public resources are concerned. The voting process issues cannot be valued. They are connected to the recall petition. Many readers are aware of the current recall petition seeking to replace two of our current council members. The council is using public money to conduct an investigation to demonstrate innocence. This use of public money may be illegal. Rather than show restraint until we can be legally clear, the council is pushing ahead risking our integrity, the very item they say they are trying to protect.

Here are the three numbers on which the council can still gamble:

1.  Delay  investigation (low risk)

2.  Continue  investigation  (high risk)

3.  Cancel investigation (no risk)

My number is (3).  I do not feel the investigation will lead to public confidence or satisfy all of the council members. However, if the council chooses (2), then I believe they must show responsibility by insuring the investigation is in no way violating the voting process. Would this additional time and information gathering cost more money? No, if the council will consult the attorney generals office for their opinion, yes if we go through our city attorney. Costs will also increase if the state prosecutor decides to proceed with the recall-connected investigation, number (2.)

I encourage council members and citizens to consider the most responsible course, not what might make us feel justified or avenged.

Please contact council member Dan Clark at 616-263-7172 if you want to receive more information about this issue:

a) Open Meetings Act quotes

b) Attorney General Kelley’s opinions on public money spent on recall-related activities

These comments and opinions do not represent the City of Cedar Springs nor the majority of council.

 

Dan Clark, Cedar Springs

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Washington, the need for compromise is greater than ever

_V-Levin

By Sen. Carl Levin

March 21, 2014

 

Not long ago, Northern Michigan University invited me to address students there as part of a series of addresses on public policy. The subject I chose for my address is, in many places, a scandalous subject: compromise.

Almost all of us in Congress have strong opinions on public policy, strong values that guide us. And on rare occasions, all of us agree on what is the right thing to do.

But we live in a large, complex nation. The interests of our state or region are different than those of others. And aside from local interests, sometimes the answer to a problem just isn’t easy or clear. Sometimes we honestly disagree about what’s best for the country.

The challenge for the Founding Fathers was designing a system that could accommodate the widely varying opinions of a nation that needed at least some unity to survive. The solution to that puzzle was our Constitution, which ensures that, while everyone has some voice in our government, no single voice dominates. The whole system forces us to accommodate the views of others, even those who disagree strongly with us, in order to accomplish our goals. It forces us to compromise.

But that system breaks down when compromise is in short supply. And it is a rare commodity these days. Leaders in Washington are influenced by constituents back home who believe “compromise” is a dirty word.

Six months ago, that attitude got us a government shutdown. Some of my colleagues in Congress refused to approve funding to keep the government running. They demanded that any legislation to keep the government open also repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Now I can respect a strongly held opinion, even if I disagree with it. But when you refuse to allow basic government functions to continue unless you get your way – your whole way – our system breaks down.

After all, I have strong opinions of my own. I feel strongly that the tax burden in this country has shifted so that working families bear more of the load, and wealthy people less. Suppose that I, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told my colleagues, “I will not allow our annual defense authorization act to come before the committee unless Congress passes a bill that closes unjustified tax loopholes used by corporations and the wealthiest individuals.” What if every member of Congress adopted such an attitude? Each of us would refuse to allow government to function unless we won total victory – and nothing would get done.

And we have so much to do. We have to deal with immigration – with the millions of people who now live in the shadows as undocumented immigrants – and with the economic costs of maintaining the status quo. We have to continue building our economy. We have to discover new worlds and new cures for deadly diseases.

We can’t do any of that if we’re not willing to compromise.

There have been some signs that the wave of hostility to compromise is cresting. Early this year, Congress passed a two-year budget agreement. There were provisions that many of us disliked. But partial agreement meant we avoided the cycle of budget crisis after crisis that has done our economy so much harm.

And just last month, Congress passed a farm bill that had been delayed for almost two years by a variety of disputes. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, did a remarkable job getting this bill passed. Nobody agreed with every part of that bill. But we were willing to compromise. We knew that settling for half a loaf, so to speak, was important to the farmers who put the bread on our tables.

These compromises are not so remarkable when you compare them to the scope of the challenges before us. But I hope they are a start. I don’t want to spend my remaining months in the Senate fighting over who can be tougher and more uncompromising. I’d rather spend that time working together on the challenges our country faces – challenges that will affect the lives of the NMU students I spoke to long after I am gone from Washington.

It is time for us all to recognize that if we are to be remembered in a positive light, it will not be for political opponents we hold down, but for the future generations we come together to lift up.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.

 

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Access to information should be a common goal

sw-iconFor better government, better lives

By Charles Hill, Michigan Coalition for open government

If you’ve been watching what goes on in Washington and some statehouses across the country, you might wonder if there’s any issue that everyone should be able to agree on whether they are conservative or liberal or libertarian, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that.

There is: It’s the need for transparency in all levels of government.

As we observe Sunshine Week in Michigan and around the country to encourage openness in government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) is urging citizens and public officials to seek transparency in the operations of their local and state governments, their schools and universities, their federal government and their courts.

You can do this by supporting Michigan legislation that would amend the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make government information more accessible by limiting fees and discouraging delays.

Or by supporting a bill that a Republican lawmaker proposed to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals. Or by supporting a bill that two Democratic lawmakers proposed to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch so it is more in line with the broader coverage that applies to the executive branch.

MiCOG—a non-profit, tax-exempt organization open to citizens, journalists and associations concerned with open government and freedom of information – urges passage of that pending legislation.

You also can make a difference by letting your local officials — from the mayor to school board members — know that it’s important to you to know how your tax dollars are being spent and how they are making decisions about classrooms or parks or roads or snow removal or trash collection.

It’s important for you to know this so you can independently judge the soundness of those decisions, so you can suggest your ideas for improvements in programs or government actions, so you can evaluate government officials’ performance, and so you can guard against corruption and conflicts of interest.

You can help by asking questions of your government officials and by encouraging openness. Politicians and government officials are more likely to take the trouble to create open systems and practices if they know it is important to their constituents.

Tell them that your assessment of their performance includes their record on open government.

Let them know this should not be a partisan issue, and that you want information regardless of which party or group is in power. If you’re in New Jersey, you don’t have to be a Democrat to want to know more about a big bridge closure in that state. In Michigan and Louisiana, you don’t have to be a Republican to want information surrounding the corruption charges that resulted in convictions of mayors in New Orleans and Detroit.

Michigan has plenty of tough transparency and accountability challenges ahead, including how courts handle public access and fees for electronic records, whether juvenile criminal records should be public or secret, and how much secrecy should be allowed in new mental health courts, including convict records and data revealing rates of recidivism for the program.

Remember that you have a stake in Michigan’s freedom of information laws. How much you are permitted to know about your government directly affects the quality of your government, your schools, your courts, your job, your freedom and your life.

Charles Hill is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a former Michigan bureau chief for The Associated Press. To join or find out more about MiCOG, go to http://www.miopengov.org or follow MiCOG on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/MIOpenGov or Twitter @miopengov.

 

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