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Archive | Voices and Views

New online service to replace Social Security Cards 

 

Available through a my Social Security Account

 

The Social Security Administration introduced the expansion of online services for residents of Michigan available through its my Social Security portal at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, announced that residents of Michigan can use the portal for many replacement Social Security number (SSN) card requests. This will allow people to replace their SSN card from the comfort of their home or office, without the need to travel to a Social Security office.

“I’m thrilled about this newest online feature to the agency’s my Social Security portal and the added convenience we are providing residents of Michigan,” Acting Commissioner Colvin said. “We continue to provide world-class customer service to the public by making it safe, fast and easy for people to do business with us online and have a positive government experience. I look forward to expanding this service option across the country.”

The agency plans to conduct a gradual roll out of this service; Michigan is one of four states, plus the District of Columbia, where this option is initially available. Throughout 2016, the agency will continue to expand the service option to other states and plans to offer this to half of the nation’s population by the end of the year. This service will mean shorter wait times for the public in the more than 1,200 Social Security offices across the country and allows staff more time to work with customers who have extensive service needs.

U.S. citizens age 18 or older and who are residents of Michigan can obtain a replacement SSN card online by creating a my Social Security account. In addition, they must have a U.S. domestic mailing address, not require a change to their record (such as a name change), and have a valid driver’s license, or state identification card in some participating states.

my Social Security is a secure online hub for doing business with Social Security, and more than 22 million people have created an account. In addition to Michigan residents replacing their SSN card through the portal, current Social Security beneficiaries can manage their account—change an address, adjust direct deposit, obtain a benefit verification letter, or request a replacement SSA-1099. Medicare beneficiaries can request a replacement Medicare card without waiting for a replacement form in the mail. Account holders still in the workforce can verify their earnings and obtain estimates of future benefits.

For more information about this new online service, visit www.socialsecurity.gov/ssnumber .

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Your social security benefit statement

 

By: Stephanie Holland, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

It’s that time of year again: time to start preparing to file your taxes. If you receive Social Security benefits, one of the documents you will need when filing your federal income tax return is your Social Security Benefit Statement (Form SSA-1099).

About one-third of people receiving Social Security benefits must pay taxes on some of these benefits, depending on the amount of their taxable income. This usually happens only iff you have other substantial income — such as wages, self-employment, interest, dividends, and other taxable income that must be reported on your tax return — in addition to your Social Security benefits. You will never have to pay taxes on more than 85 percent of your Social Security benefits, based on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules.

You automatically receive your 1099 form each January. It shows the total amount of benefits you received in the previous year so you know how much Social Security income to report on your tax return. The 1099 form is not available for people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as SSI payments are not taxable.

Social Security makes it easy to obtain a replacement 1099 form if you didn’t receive one or misplaced yours. You can get a replacement quickly by using your secure online my Social Security account. If you don’t already have an account, you can create one in minutes. Open your own personal my Social Security account today at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. Once you are logged in, select the “Replacement Documents” tab to obtain your replacement 1099 form.

You can also obtain a replacement 1099 form by calling us at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778), Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or by contacting your local Social Security office. If you live outside of the United States, please contact your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.     

Stephanie Holland is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 455 Bond St, Benton Harbor MI 49022 or via email at stephanie.holland@ssa.gov  

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Government needs to work better 

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

Whoever wins next November’s presidential election, it’s a sure bet that at some point he or she will vow to set the federal government on the straight and narrow. It’s a bracing sentiment. But you’ll want to take it with a grain of salt.

Our history is filled with remarkable government accomplishments. Our involvement in World War II and hands-on approach to the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Japan, our role in ending the Cold War, the interstate highway system, extending the right to vote to all our citizens…There’s a long list of crucially important efforts the federal government has executed well.

Yet every American ought also to be alarmed by an expanding list of missteps and blunders. In a report last month for the highly capable and too-little-noticed Volcker Alliance—whose goal is to improve government effectiveness—NYU Professor Paul C. Light drew attention to what he calls “a shocking acceleration in the federal government’s production of highly visible mistakes, miscalculations, and maladministration.”

A moment’s reflection will call to mind a sobering litany of failure, from the inability to stop the 9/11 attacks to shortfalls in the care of our veterans. The reasons range from muddled policy or insufficient resources to outright misconduct, but the question isn’t really what or who is to blame. It’s how we turn things around and reverse the accelerating pace of breakdowns.

To start, while a lot of hard work goes into creating policy on Capitol Hill and in the agencies, much less attention goes to how it will be carried out. Both branches need to focus on how they will assess effectiveness, anticipate problems, make sure that staffing is adequate, and provide necessary resources.

Second, if making policy today is complicated, so is implementing it. This means that we need skillful people within the government to carry it out, which means hiring them, retaining them, and making sure they’re held to account with well-conceived metrics.

Finally, too often these days the losers of a policy debate turn to torpedoing it. Some government failures aren’t the result of muddled policy, lack of leadership, or incompetence; they’re the result of what amounts to calculated sabotage. This needs to end.

Most Americans want government to work well. When a policy is adopted, it needs to be executed effectively. Whoever our next President turns out to be, let’s hope he or she takes that charge seriously.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about educational resources and programs, visit www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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The Force is strong with Social Security’s online services

 

By: Stephanie Holland, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? 

This winter, Americans of all generations are awakening to the newest film in the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Many readers probably remember seeing the first Star Wars film in theaters in 1977. Audiences watched with fascination at the advanced technology used by the Jedi and Sith in a galaxy far, far away.

We still don’t have interstellar travel, personal robots, or holographic communication, but we now use technology in our daily lives that would have seemed like science fiction in 1977. At that time, it would still be years until the modern Internet and smart phones would be part of our lives. Now, many of us can’t imagine life without such technology.

Many people who need to do business with Social Security are finding an awakening of sorts in how easy it is to use our online services. We continually expand our online services to reflect changing customer needs, and to provide you with world-class service. Our online services are convenient and secure, and allow you to conduct much of your business with us from the comfort of your home, office, or space freighter.

You can open a free personal online my Social Security account at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount, where you can keep track of your annual earnings and verify them. Why is that important?  Because your future benefits are based on your annual earnings. With your account, you can also get an estimate of your future benefits if you are still working; or, if you currently receive benefits, you can use your account to manage your benefits, and get an instant letter with proof of your benefits. You can also request a Medicare card replacement.

“The force is calling to you. Just let it in.” This winter, check out our online services and join the millions of other Americans who have already awakened their own personal my Social Security accounts. A my Social Security account is a force to be reckoned with. And you don’t need to be a Jedi to have one.

Learn more at www.socialsecurity.gov. Once you go online, this force will be with you … always.

Stephanie Holland is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 455 Bond St, Benton Harbor MI 49022 or via email at stephanie.holland@ssa.gov  

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Remembering our friend

Cindy Lewis

Cindy Lewis

By Judy Reed

Hearts have been heavy at the Post since late last week, when we lost our friend and coworker Cindy Lewis. She died in her sleep last Thursday morning, December 17. We were told it was probably a heart attack. She was only 54.

This came as a real shock to her family, friends and coworkers because Cindy was so full of life. She was the type of person that brightened the room as soon as she entered. She was always smiling, often laughing, and was genuinely interested in those around her. She was kindhearted, compassionate, generous and selfless. She loved people—and she showed it in the way she treated them.

Some of you who are business owners knew Cindy through her contact with you about advertising in our paper. She was one of our salespeople, and took a real interest in not only keeping her customers happy, but in building relationships with advertisers.

When Lois Allen, our publisher, was involved in her accident last spring, Cindy often went out of her way to make sure Lois had what she needed. She also made sure several of Lois’s customers were taken care of, though she made no commission. She cared more that the paper survived that setback than she did about who got credit for sales.

Some readers may have known Cindy through interactions with her during her children’s sporting activities over the years, such as football and cheer. She was an avid supporter of her seven children, who are now grown. Family was the most important thing in her life; she talked about them often. Our hearts go out to her family; her fiancé John, her children, grandchildren, mother, and extended family. She was a stabilizing force in their lives and they will need much peace and comfort in the coming weeks, months and years.

Cindy’s death has left a gap here in our office, as well. We are not quite whole. We keep waiting to see her smiling face come through the door, or hear her voice on the phone.

Sometimes it’s the little things that get you. Yesterday, when I got to the office, I wondered briefly if I should unlock the back door for Cindy, since her key didn’t work last time. And then, with a little stab of pain, I remembered.

When deciding what to make for our Thursday staff lunch meeting this week, I wondered what I could substitute for onion in the recipe—because Cindy was allergic to onions. Sadly, that will no longer be an issue.

But I think what I will miss most is when she would come plop down in the chair in my office and talk—about anything, about everything—her family, the community, what was happening in the office. In the days and weeks before she died, we talked about what she was getting the kids for Christmas; the surprise she had for her mom and other family members about someone coming for the holidays and how hard it was to keep that secret; her grandchildren; my kids and grandchildren; and much more. It was nothing earthshaking; just the stuff that affects us everyday—the things that friends share. Because Cindy was more than a coworker; she was a friend. One that I and the rest of the staff at the Post will miss very much. But I do know that I will see her again someday, and that I am a better person for having known her.

For more information about Cindy, you can read her obituary here.

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A very tough job 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

You know who I feel sorry for? Today’s politicians.

You’ll laugh at this, but hear me out. This is a very tough time to be a politician, whether running for office or trying to lead while holding office. The women and men who’ve undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now.

Not that they’ve ever been easy, at least in my lifetime. Our size, diversity, and multi-layered government structure; the number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily; and the divided politics of our time, which make settling on coherent policies especially challenging—all these combine to make being a politician in a representative democracy one of the most demanding jobs around. Several features of the current political landscape, however, give politics a sharper edge and make it far more difficult to navigate.

For starters, our political discourse, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, is less forgiving than it was a generation ago. Political opponents are no longer just people with whom we happen to disagree; they’re people who need to be shamed into silence. They can’t be trusted, they can’t be negotiated with, they’re self-serving and unpatriotic, and when they’re not incompetent, they’re scheming, ill-informed and ill-intentioned. This rhetoric is not just calculated demonization. The extent to which politicians today genuinely distrust the other side is something new in our politics. It makes progress on the issues of the day extremely complicated.

This is exacerbated by politicians’ awareness that voters have lost confidence in our traditional political leadership and are searching hard for alternatives. You see this in the rise of candidates like Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, who speak to voters who are looking for someone to express their anger and frustration.

Why are Americans upset, and more willing than usual to rally to outlying candidates? I don’t think there’s any great mystery. For starters, we have a society that is deeply concerned about economic insecurity; as the Pew Research Center reported recently, the American middle class—for decades the stable anchor of economy and society—is in trouble and no longer in the majority. People are moving up, but most are not, and some are moving down. Small wonder that immigration causes so much concern.

You can add to this the fear of terrorism and a deeply unsettled view of the major changes taking place in American society: the rise of big data and its attendant loss of privacy; the migration flows that whittle away at some communities, while causing others to change unrecognizably from month to month; the tensions that diversity, arguments over gender, and racial conflict all produce; the fluid and ever-changing patterns of religious belief and identity that have shaken many communities loose from the institutions that once moored them; the decline of the traditional, objective media. America today is an uneasy place, and we see this reflected in voters’ frustration and pessimism.

With next year’s elections still almost a year away, voters are mostly just looking around. They like candidates who express their anger and resentment, but that’s in part because they’re not measuring candidates by whether they seem fit for the presidency or Congress or the governor’s mansion. Voters are just now starting to hold candidates up to the standards of the offices they seek; as they do, the unsettled political environment in which we find ourselves will grow a bit less uncertain.

But the long-term issues—the fears and uncertainty and the forces driving them–won’t have gone away. Which is why I feel great sympathy for politicians at the moment. The skills we need in our political leaders, like the ability to approach those with whom they disagree with a measure of good will and an openness to negotiation and compromise, are not held in high esteem by the voters or by the loudest voices in their own parties. It’s easy for a politician to pander to anger and frustration. It’s much harder to face a roomful of disparate opinions and forge a consensus behind a solution. Yet that is precisely what many politicians recognize our country needs.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about educational resources and programs, visit www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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Many happy returns to Social Security

 

By: Stephanie Holland, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

Everyone enjoys presents, but loved ones don’t always know exactly what you want. That sweater your relative gave you might be a little too festive for your taste. That’s when those happy returns begin. With gift receipt in hand, you go to the store or online to exchange that item for one you really want.

Now that the holidays are winding down, you’re also probably happy to return to your calmer routine. And part of that routine is planning for retirement.

Your secure my Social Security account allows you to do a number of important things throughout the year, at your convenience:

• Keep track of your earnings and verify them every year;

• Get an estimate of your future benefits if you are still working;

• Get a letter with proof of your benefits if you currently receive them; and

• Manage your benefits:

  • Change your address;
  • Start or change your direct deposit;
  • Get a replacement Medicare card; and
  • Get a replacement SSA-1099 or SSA-1042S for tax season.

Signing up for my Social Security at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount is quick, easy, and secure.

We also have another invaluable tool that you can use over and over. The Retirement Estimator allows you to calculate your potential future Social Security benefits by changing variables such as retirement dates and future earnings. You may discover that you’d rather wait another year or two before you retire to earn a higher benefit. Or, you might learn that you are ready to retire now — which you also can do online and often-in less than 15 minutes. To get instant, personalized estimates of your future benefits, go to www.socialsecurity.gov/estimator.

It’s exciting to see the happy returns you’ll be getting when you retire, and returning to my Social Security on a regular basis will ensure you get the right amount at the right time. Give yourself the gift of a secure future at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

Stephanie Holland is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 455 Bond St, Benton Harbor MI 49022 or via email at stephanie.holland@ssa.gov   

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Sadly, Congress seems okay with being weak 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

Not many people outside of Capitol Hill paid attention last month when the congressional leadership released next year’s legislative schedule. Its headline feature is a strikingly long summer recess: half of July and all of August, along with a few spotty weeks of work before the November election. There are plenty of other breaks as well; in all, the House will be in session for less than one-third of the year, and the Senate only a bit longer.

I suppose we could take Congress to task for not working hard enough, and I’m sure plenty of people will do so. But the schedule reveals an even more serious issue: it suggests that Congress, or at least its leadership, is unconcerned about how ineffective and even irrelevant the institution has become when it comes to policy making.

This has been a long-term trend, with plenty of responsibility to be laid at the feet of political leaders in both parties. Even some recent signs of progress, like the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aren’t enough. Many people, within Washington and beyond, now take Congress’s weakened state for granted, almost as if it’s the natural order of things.

That is because wherever you turn, Congress has lost ground as an institution. The contrast with the presidency is especially stark. Every President in recent memory has expanded the power of his office, and for good reason. The modern world demands quick, decisive action, and Americans like presidents who act forcefully. Yet the result is that the balance of power has shifted dangerously toward the President.

This is especially apparent on two fronts where Congress ought to be resolute. One is the budget — the basic blueprint for the government — which is now largely the President’s responsibility. Congress cannot even produce a real budget any more; every year, it kicks the serious fiscal questions down the road — from hard decisions on tax reform to even harder decisions on spending. Its deference to the President is even more striking when it comes to committing U.S. forces overseas. Members of Congress happily criticize the President on issue after issue, lamenting that they cannot trust him and cannot work with him. Yet on some of the most important questions the government faces — whether, how, where, and when to intervene using military force — they defer utterly to the White House.

They do the same with the regulatory agencies. Members love to criticize the EPA, for instance, but rarely put their words into legislative action, and they fail repeatedly to do the kind of routine, painstaking oversight of federal agencies that would help eliminate wasted resources and bureaucratic overreach.

At the same time, they’ve handed economic power to the Federal Reserve. Fifty years ago, the ordinary American who could name the chair of the Fed was rare. Today, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without reading about Janet Yellen and the Fed’s board of governors. Because Congress has essentially given up on trying to shape fiscal policy, it has put the Fed in charge of keeping the economy growing.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the principal way our country deals with a host of tough issues like abortion and affirmative action. These are matters that, ideally, would be wrestled through the legislative process. Instead, they’re up to the Court.

Congress these days is failing to assert its responsibilities under the Constitution — it is far from being the co-equal branch our Founders envisioned. And many of its members agree. They don’t believe the institution they serve is doing its job — they’d point, for instance, to immigration reform, which Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced the House would not even touch next year, despite the pressing need. Here is an issue practically begging for rolled-up sleeves on Capitol Hill. Yet instead of action, they get a congressional schedule that sends members back to their districts for most of the year.

Which may be the most distressing part of it all. Instead of being concerned enough about Congress’s weakness and inactivity to take action, its leaders, at least, appear to believe that many of the toughest issues on the national agenda are beyond their capability to resolve.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government.” 

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Members of Congress need to spend more Time on Capitol Hill 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

When Paul Ryan became House Speaker a few weeks ago, he made it clear that he has no intention of spending too much time in Washington. His wife and children are in Wisconsin, he pointed out, and he plans to commute, as he’s done since he got elected to Congress. “I just work here,” he told CNN, “I don’t live here.”

I have great sympathy for Ryan’s urge to strike a balance between family and work. It is very, very tough for every member, let alone the Speaker, to live and work far from home, and to weigh constantly whether to be in Washington or back in the district. I remember that when I served in Congress, I felt I was in the wrong place wherever I happened to be. If I was home in Indiana, I missed important meetings on Capitol Hill. When I was in Washington, the calendar in Indiana was filled with events I should have been attending.

Yet while we should sympathize with the compromises members of Congress have to make between their duties in Washington and their responsibilities back home, there’s no question where they must be to discharge their public responsibilities. If we want a well-functioning Congress, they need to be in Washington more.

When I first got elected to Congress in 1964, members didn’t have to split time between their colleagues on Capitol Hill and their families back in the district, because most of us moved our families to Washington. But over the years, the politics of the country have grown strongly anti-Washington. Members of Congress do not want to be associated with the city. They want to show they haven’t been seduced by the lifestyle of the Nation’s Capital or adopted an “inside-the-beltway” mindset. They take pride in rejecting the elitism of Washington. Today’s politics make it hard to argue that members should be spending more time on Capitol Hill.

Yet as Washington Post writer Dana Milbank noted recently in an insightful column on the topic, “It’s no mere coincidence that in the time this trend has taken hold, much of what had previously existed in Washington disappeared: civility, budget discipline, big bipartisan legislation and just general competence. In place of this have come bickering, showdowns, shutdowns and the endless targeting of each other for defeat in the next election.”

Expanding the Capitol Hill workweek, in other words, isn’t just a symbolic gesture. It’s one of the keys to reversing congressional dysfunction.

For starters, you have to get to know your colleagues in order to do business with them. The amenities are crucial in politics, even more than in most spheres of working life. In any legislature, whether it’s on Capitol Hill or in a state capital or in City Hall, the very nature of the job is going to involve disagreement. Yet everyone there is there to solve problems together; they have no choice but to work together. It’s hard to attack a person you know well, but even more important, getting to know one another—and one another’s families—is an essential lubricant for resolving the issues you confront together.

Second, drafting legislation is highly demanding, because the core of it involves building consensus. This takes time. It can’t be forced. Members have to have the time and room to consider the options, look for common ground, and think through alternatives. Politicians, in other words, need sufficient time to be good politicians and good legislators. The array of tough issues that face Congress can’t be dealt with by part-time legislators,

which is what they are right now. Members of Congress work hard, but they do not work hard at legislating. They work hard at constituent relations and raising money and campaigning. Legislating, whether we like it or not, takes a five-day week, not the three they put in at the moment.

What I’m arguing for here will not be popular with members of Congress, and it certainly won’t get a warm reception from their families. But they are elected to do the job of legislating. For the good of the institution they serve, and the work product they owe the nation, members need to spend more time in Washington.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Washington’s latest deal: little cause for celebration

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

You can understand why President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House.

Still, for all their hard work, our political leaders indulged in two bad habits that they really need to kick, because they wreak havoc with effective and efficient government and cost taxpayers a pile of money.

First, while they gave themselves some breathing room before the next time the debt ceiling has to be raised, they will nonetheless have to raise the debt ceiling eventually. They should have abolished it, or at least suspended it.

The debt ceiling has become a political pawn, used repeatedly as leverage by opposition parties to make demands of the President. It has driven the persistent national game of “chicken” that has so tarnished Congress’s image in recent decades. The legislative maneuvering surrounding each debt ceiling bill consumes huge amounts of legislative time that is better spent on other matters.

The second bad habit is equally pernicious: the budget deal did little to shift Congress from its reliance on continuing resolutions. The CR, as it’s known, was designed to keep government operating for a few days or weeks while congressional negotiators worked out the budget. In recent decades, though, it has become the way we fund the government.

Continuing resolutions bypass the appropriations bills written by specialized committees and provide a favored few interests a bonanza. They also keep the federal government—and hence state and local agencies that rely on federal commitments—in “handcuffs,” as a recent article in Politico put it. The CR puts the government on automatic pilot, avoids hundreds of difficult funding and policy decisions, and has become a substitute for working hard to pass a budget by the regular process. It lacks transparency, sidesteps good budgeting, puts all the power in the hands of a few congressional leaders, and invites Congress to act in a crisis mode.

Do you want the Congress to work better? If so, ask your favorite member to think big and not lock into a failing system. A good start would be to kick these two bad habits.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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