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Archive | Voices and Views

Access my Social Security from your home

By Vonda Vantil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

With so many services available online through my Social Security, signing up for a secure account will help you conduct Social Security business from home.  With your personal my Social Security account, you can:

  • Estimate your future benefits with our Retirement Calculator to compare different dates or ages to begin receiving benefits;
  • Check the status of your Social Security application;
  • Review your work history; and
  • Request a replacement Social Security card (in most States). 
  • If you already receive benefits, you can also:
  • Get a benefit verification or proof of income letter;
  • Set up or change your direct deposit;
  • Change your address; 
  • Request a replacement Medicarecard; and
  • Get a Social Security 1099 form (SSA-1099).

You can even use your personal my Social Security account to opt out of receiving certain notices by mail, such as the annual cost-of-living adjustments and the income-related monthly adjustment amount notice.  Instead, through the Message Center you can receive secure, sensitive communications.

Let your friends and family know that they can create a my Social Security account today at www.ssa.gov/myaccount

Vonda Van Til is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov.  

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Worrisome trends affecting representative democracy

By Lee H. Hamilton

We’ve seen plenty of evidence lately of the deep polarization in this country. Even in the midst of this crisis, national politicians, the political parties, and their adherents are finding plenty to fight over—even as, for the most part, ordinary Americans have been remarkably united and many governors and mayors have worked hard to handle the coronavirus pandemic competently and guided by expert advice.

The question as we look ahead is whether the trends we’d been seeing before the pandemic will reassert themselves, or instead there will be some sort of reset. Because those earlier trends are extremely worrisome.

For years now, it’s been common for politicians to label their rivals as unpatriotic and illegitimate. The deep freeze in cross-aisle relations in Congress had made progress there extremely difficult, though the crisis has given congressional leaders and members of the Trump Administration no choice but to keep bargaining until they hammer out agreements.

Other trends are equally problematic. The federal civil service, for instance, has always fielded a lot of very good people—dedicated public servants who try not to be partisan, remain independent in their views, and support the work of whichever administration is in power. They want to make government work better. That has gotten much harder to pull off in recent years, and the result is a civil service that is losing workers, institutional knowledge, and competence. There are still capable civil servants, many of whom have been doing their best to keep federal services on an even keel during this crisis, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that their impact has been diminished.

Likewise with the judiciary, which has become more politicized. It’s a worrisome trend in a branch of government that has generally stood for even-handed justice and, over the long term, strengthened Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties. The President, however, likes to say that his biggest achievement in office has been to put very conservative judges into power, a claim that undermines the judicial branch’s standing as the pillar of independence this country long depended upon. Ideology will always play a role in judicial choices but making judges more nakedly political is a destructive trend.

This extends to the media, as well. For whatever reason, it exercises less rigorous oversight of government, and what does exist is more partisan. While there’s coverage of national issues and politics, the trends have led to less robust local coverage, and a less healthy democracy.

As polarization has deepened, Congress has gridlocked, presidential power has expanded (not a new thing, by the way), and the government has become less responsive and less effective. It took a national crisis to lay bare some of these issues, but the trends underlying them have been going on for some time, and fixing them will take time, too.

This has to start with ordinary Americans. Voters need to reclaim our democracy and demand that the system that made us a great nation—one that adhered to the checks and balances and separate institutional responsibilities laid out in our Constitution—be restored. At the community, state, and federal levels, our job is to maintain the robustness of our institutions of government, agitate to ensure that they are performing as they should, and recognize that if the trends I’ve laid out strengthen their grip, our representative democracy will suffer. The threats may not be existential yet, but they could become so. 

Because here’s the thing. People may distrust government, but just as the pandemic has made clear that at bottom there’s no palatable alternative to an effective and competent government system, so it’s also true that the only way ultimately to solve the problems and worrisome trends of government is principally through government action. Which means that in the end, as citizens we have to forcefully step up to our responsibilities and insist that our public officials do so, too.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. 

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Echoes of a bygone era

As I listen to the news about the coronavirus, I was reminded of a similar happening much closer to us in Cedar Springs. In 1884 a Diphtheria epidemic struck this community. The following is from a historical account written by Betty L. Heiss titled “Solon Township Out of the Wilderness” published in 1995.

“The Diphtheria epidemic occurred in1884 while William E. Davis was sexton. This dreaded disease was so infectious that when family members died, burials usually took place at night in unmarked graves. Those in need of the sexton’s assistance would come to the end of his driveway and ring the bell for William, who lived only one half mile from the cemetery. An excerpt taken from a family history written by his granddaughter Leona, relates what happened after her grandfather contacted that malady.

‘…so my grandmother sent the children to live in the barn until he recovered. She would take food to them part way and they would come the rest of the way to get it after she went back to the house. Fortunately, none of them got it, but when they returned to school they missed a lot of children. One family lost five children.’”

From 2004 until 2012 I had the privilege of serving as Solon Township Clerk. As part of my duties I was charged with keeping the records for the cemetery. During this time the Deputy Clerk and I spent many hours trying to put together accurate computer records of the cemetery. What we found out was there were many unmarked graves with the simple notation “baby” on an old oil skin map of the cemetery. I believe we counted nine.

On a second note I was driving through Cedar Springs recently and I couldn’t help but notice how empty it seemed. Hardly any cars and few people. While some people might think it reminds them of a ghost town, I thought of a bygone time. A time when I was growing up in the 50s. A Sunday when everyone went to church, had dinner with the family and no businesses were open.

Maybe God’s trying to tell us something and we’re so wrapped up in ourselves we forgot.

John W. Rideout                                                                                                                                      Solon Township

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Assurance of Easter

The threat of the COVID-19 virus and the assurance of Easter reminded me of the church hymn taken from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (KJV).

Lyle Perry Jr.

Cedar Springs

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You are essential!

By Sen. Peter MacGregor

Beyond the headlines of the COVID-19 crisis are the untold stories of how stress and uncertainty affect people’s mental health. Restrictions on our movement, assembling, jobs and daily routines compound the situation.

This unprecedented time spent away from work, church, school and the otherwise normal routines of life can understandably be challenging. The resulting isolation and anxiety are affecting people in ways they never could have expected or even thought possible.

It can be hard to come to grips with such a sudden and drastic change. One day things are great, and the next, you find yourself without work, struggling to figure out how to make a vehicle payment or pay rent, let alone afford groceries for a hungry family. If you’re lucky enough to have a job, the challenge of working remotely and in isolation can be daunting on one’s mental health. 

My heart breaks for the single moms who lost jobs that were deemed nonessential, and for the laid-off dads who worked hard so their wives could stay home with the kids. The employed are not without consequence, either. Physicians, nurses, first responders, grocery clerks, fast food workers, tellers and others who remain on the job bear the anxiety of becoming infected with every shift.

There is no question that the loss of life due to this pandemic is devastating. But the overall cost to everyone in our community in terms of quality of life and loss of well-being is an issue that cannot be ignored during this crisis. People with debt are three times more likely to have a mental health issue, especially depression, anxiety and psychotic disorders. Financial stress is the second most common cause of suicide, after depression.

Dr. Adam London, Ph.D., RS, DAAS, who is the director for the Kent County Health Department, recently joined me for a community tele-town hall on the coronavirus. He said suicide, alcohol, substance use disorder, child abuse/neglect and depression are real mental challenges people face every day because of the financial stress of the pandemic. 

“Mental health concerns have consistently been listed near the top of our community’s priorities whenever they are surveyed,” London said. “Our county and the state were faced with suicide and overdose epidemics long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. We need to be mindful that the stresses of this crisis are going to further exacerbate those problems.”

Depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, addictions, child and senior neglect, and suicide — these are all very real concerns under these troubled circumstances. It is no wonder that desperate calls to crisis support centers and suicide prevention hotlines have increased since COVID-19 began its destructive spread across the country. 

If you are an individual who finds yourself stuck in a battered relationship, fearful and unable to get out, there is help. If you or someone you know is having a hard time, you are not alone. And if you want to talk to someone, there are people who are available to help — who want nothing more than to see you well, and who will stop at nothing to help you get there. There are several state and national services that are available for people who may need help, including:

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “warmline” for residents who have mental health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is operated by certified peer support specialists and is available seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Call 888-733-7753.

Michigan 211, which is available all day every day to connect with help of all kinds. Go to mi211.org or call 2-1-1. 

The Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24/7/365 crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters, like COVID-19. Call 800-985-5990 or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources. Call 800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7/365 to talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship. Call 800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org.

Faith-based institutions and religious leaders can be of great benefit. Consider calling a local parish, church, or other place of worship for prayer or counseling. 

Your life has meaning and value. You are essential. Your family needs you. Your friends need you. Michigan needs you. This moment is but a page in the book that is your purposeful life. We are all in this together, and together we will get through it.

As we begin to see signs of hope, Michigan will find a safe path forward, focusing on the health of our residents. However, this will not be business as usual. As a state, we need to be open to different methods of delivering services and products, with particular focus on the big three: social distancing, wearing masks and washing our hands. We can do this! 

May God continue to bless our Michigan communities and our nation as we fight to overcome this horrible pandemic.

Senator Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford, is the Senate majority floor leader and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Community Health and Human Services.

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How Congress has changed

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative

If you feel like Congress has become less productive, less functional, and more partisan… you’re right. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it’s changed over the years since I served there in the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and several issues help explain why it often struggles to get things done.

Heightened partisanship may top the list. Congress has always been a partisan organization; we’ve seen tense battles throughout its history. But now they’re more intense and occur more frequently. Members tend to see issues predominantly, though not completely, through a partisan lens.

This is reflected in their voting patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, votes in which a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other occurred roughly one-third to one-half the time. Starting in the early ‘90s, that percentage rose into the 60 and 70 percent range. Add to this increasingly split control of Congress, with one party controlling the House and the other the Senate, and agreement becomes exceedingly difficult to find.

In many ways, this reflects the country at large. Though identification with a party or as an independent has tended to move a few percentage points over time, Americans of each party seem ever more firmly stuck in their own camps. It has become more difficult to resolve our differences, and this has undoubtedly contributed to congressional gridlock.

Years ago, the question that pervaded discussions on Capitol Hill was, “What can we do to resolve this problem?” Members were unwilling to accept stalemate or lack of agreement. Leaders at the time—people like Carl Albert and Tip O’Neill on the Democrats’ side and Bob Michel and John Anderson on the Republicans’—certainly had partisan differences, but these did not dominate the discussion. Behind closed doors they would discuss them civilly and politely, even going so far as to share private polling numbers.

At the same time that polarization has increased, Congress’s ambition has generally lessened. It’s almost inconceivable today that Congress would tackle a big issue—say, how to provide health care for older people—by trying to create something like Medicare. You see this same trend in oversight of the executive branch. There were committee chairmen who knew the ins and outs of the departments they oversaw down to the finest detail. They would spend days grilling administration witnesses (of even their own party), creating an extensive record of what an administration and its political appointees were trying to accomplish —information that helped ordinary Americans understand and judge the government’s approach. That is much harder to find today.

I think you can also detect the same trend at work in a diminishment of Congress’s oratorical ambitions. There was a time when members of Congress on both sides of the aisle considered Congress to be equal in stature to the President and the executive branch, and their speech-making reflected this: they saw strong oratory as a chance to encapsulate ideas and inspire Americans to rally behind them.

A key thing to remember is that this wasn’t just the speaker of the House or the majority leader of the Senate. Power and influence were spread more widely across both chambers. As the leadership in recent years has come to dominate the process, ordinary members find far fewer chances to shine. The collapse of what was known as the “regular order,” the committee work and amendment process that allowed ordinary members to participate in the deliberative work of Capitol Hill, has thoroughly concentrated power in the hands of leaders and made Congress less representative as a whole.

That trend has been accentuated by the extent to which money now talks at every stage of the process. It’s not just that members are constantly trying to raise campaign funds. It’s that the mix of who funds those campaigns has changed dramatically. In the late 1970s, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress, labor and corporate PACs gave about equally. Now, corporate PACs account for the vast majority of all the money flowing to members’ campaigns.

The result of all this? Congress is still a vital part of our democracy, but it is by most measures a less effective one.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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What makes a successful politician?

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative

One of the intriguing features of the coronavirus pandemic is how sharply it has illuminated the importance of effective political leadership. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we’re looking to elected officials to help steer us through this crisis.

While I don’t want to talk about specific politicians, a lifetime in politics has given me a sense of what makes a good one—as a policy maker, that is, rather than a candidate. One of the ironies of our system is that the skills and attributes that put someone in office are usually not the skills needed for success once they’re there. Yet as a nation we depend on politicians’ abilities in office to move us forward.

For starters, I think the most successful politicians have integrity. When you’re interacting with many others to deal with complex and difficult public policy issues, it’s hugely important that you can trust someone’s word. Most of the politicians I’ve met stay true to what they tell you. They recognize the need to work with others and know that trust matters.

For the same reason, they tend to be skillful at working with all sorts of people. Sizing others up accurately—not just whether they’re trustworthy, but the skills and strengths they might bring to a given policy or organizing effort—is vital. So is not rushing to make quick judgments, but instead letting others show through their actions what they can accomplish. Many good politicians are quite tolerant—they know people make mistakes or errors of judgment, and that nobody has a monopoly on the truth or performs flawlessly.

The best politicians I’ve met—Bill Clinton comes to mind—also have a way of charming people who don’t agree with them. I was in a room once with Clinton and a group of people whom he knew disliked him. He was affable, engaging, listened carefully to what they had to say; you would never have guessed he had any idea what they thought of him. Walking out with them afterward, I asked what they thought. They all responded, “I still have disagreements with him, but what a nice fellow!”

I’ve been impressed over the years by the energy and drive to get things done that good politicians bring to their work. When I talk with people who want to get into politics, I usually open the conversation with two questions: What’s your energy level? And what’s your spouse or partner think about it? Both are critically important, because as all-consuming as a campaign might be, serving in office is even more so, especially if you’re a politician who wants to accomplish change. An unsupportive spouse or partner spells problems down the road.

At the same time, accomplished politicians know how to rein in their enthusiasm and zeal. They practice patience and perseverance and prepare for the long haul, because they understand that controversial things don’t get easily done in our system. They believe that facts matter, because they’re the starting point for any productive negotiation. And they’re very good at managing their time efficiently.

Good politicians are able to put aside partisan differences when necessary and work for the common good. They do not see someone they disagree with as the enemy.

One of the intriguing things about good politicians is that they don’t just want to serve their country and communities, they also know how to check their egos at the door and act with apparent humility—even when, as is often the case, their egos are quite healthy. I remember when Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House, he’d make sure to let other House members bask in the glow of accomplishment as often as possible. When legislation passed, he’d congratulate everybody involved—he knew what each of us had done to move the ball forward—and you’d walk out of there thinking he’d had nothing to do with it at all, even if he’d orchestrated the whole thing.

I’ll be candid: No politician combines all these traits. But it can’t hurt to keep the ideal in front of us and know what the politicians we elect should strive to be.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Can Congress make democratic governance work?

By Lee H. Hamilton

This is a time of great testing for Congress. As it considers responses to the nation’s health and economic crises, it faces close scrutiny by ordinary Americans, financial markets, and businesses large and small across the country. The pressure to move quickly is intense, and it is not an institution built for that purpose.

Yet Congress acts with unaccustomed swiftness when needed. The House passed the first relief measure—providing paid leave, enhanced unemployment benefits, free coronavirus testing, and food and health care aid—while the administration was still coming to grips with the dimensions of the crisis. The Senate acted the following week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s words to the GOP caucus were instructive: “I do not believe we should let perfection be the enemy of something that will help even a subset of workers,” he said. In other words: Do this now. And clearly, lawmakers took the need for speed to heart, and in a bipartisan way. The measures passed overwhelmingly in both houses.

There’s a key but basic fact to remember about how Congress works: it’s governed by a majority. This seems like a very simple thing to say, but the reality is that it is not always easy to achieve. I lost track of the number of times, when I served in the House, that I counted members, looking for ways to get to 218 votes (a majority of the 435 members) for a bill I supported. It was a constant question within the party leadership: “How many votes do we have? Can we go to the floor and expect to win?” This is compounded when, as now, each chamber is under the control of a different party. Still, while there are never any guarantees, at times of national crisis the math becomes much easier to achieve.

That’s despite the fact that members can vote any way they want to, and Congress is where all the crosscurrents and needs of a complicated nation converge. Congress—at all times, but especially now—is beset by organized interests weighing in. Industry, professional groups, labor unions, farm organizations, veterans’ groups, and hundreds of others all have something to say. These groups are highly organized, effective, and sophisticated. They and their lobbyists are powerful, talented, and deeply knowledgeable of the process. Members of Congress are also listening to the no-doubt urgent messages they’re getting from their constituents and making the political calculations that, even at the most dire times, are very much in the mix on Capitol Hill. You can see why arriving at agreements swiftly is such difficult work.

Which is why, now more than ever, everything depends on the leadership. Even in calm times, the key to the functioning of Congress rests overwhelmingly with the presiding officers of the House and Senate, and with their teams. At the moment, both McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are conveying that they intend to keep Congress on an even keel as they work on relief and stimulus legislation. Nonetheless, it is also up to ordinary Americans to keep pressure on the politicians, and especially their own representatives, to make sure that Congress performs as we need it to. I don’t think people are unrealistic about what can be done—they don’t expect miracles. But members of the public do need to remind elected officials that our eyes are on them.

This is obviously a time of great peril, with immense stakes. We are a democracy, unlike the more centrally governed countries that have reacted forcefully to their own crises. Our challenge—and Congress’s in particular—is to respond as the situation demands while preserving the best that democratic governance offers: solutions to the country’s problems that reflect the best thinking and collective wisdom of a great, diverse, and creative nation. It is not written in the stars that Congress can make it work, especially as members grapple with illness in their own ranks. But the evidence so far is that in this crisis, when we need it to come through, Congress can do important work well and do it in a bipartisan way.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Update on hours due to corona virus

We have a temporary change in our office routine to announce in regard to circumstances regarding the COVID-19 virus. Due to the fact that we have employees with auto-immune disorders and employees caring for vulnerable family members with breathing problems, our office will be closed to the general public until further notice. Please consider emailing us or calling us (696-3655) if you need to submit something, discuss something, or need to make a payment. We can take your payment over the phone with a credit/debit card. If you need to drop something off, we will have a mailbox outside our door that we will check often. Please do not put checks or valuables in the box. If you need to give us a check, please send through regular mail. At least one person will be in the office from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday to take calls, and we will be closed on Friday. This is only temporary and we apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for understanding!

For more contact information visit our About page http://cedarspringspost.com/about/

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What Congress represents

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative

In one of the US Capitol hallways that House members pass through regularly to get to the chambers, there’s an inscription of a comment by Alexander Hamilton. It comes from his 1788 remarks to the New York convention on ratifying the Constitution, and reads simply, “Here, Sir, the people govern.”

I’ve always thought that was a pretty good summation of what Congress represents: it is a repository of the thoughts and will of the American people. And my impression is that a lot of Americans think highly of that idea, too. I’ve held a lot of public meetings over the years, and even in recent times, when Congress’s public standing has been low, people often speak approvingly of the history of the institution itself; they’re disappointed in how Congress performs, not in its role within our system. In all that time, I can’t ever remember anyone saying we’d be better off without it.

My experience in the House bore that belief out. Though there were always flaws, the process the House followed was focused on deliberation, debate, discussion, and then choosing a solution based more often than not on a rough consensus of its members. Even if I didn’t agree with the results, I’d often listen to the debates and think, “I like the way this institution works.”

I still remember the time that Wilbur Mills, the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, came before the Democratic caucus to talk about the upcoming vote on establishing Medicare. I was a new, young representative, and when Mills told us that we easily had enough votes to ram the measure through over Republican objections, I and many others thought we should do exactly that. Mills, however, did not. He asked us to give him an opportunity to negotiate with Republicans and find ground that both sides could agree on, so that the bill could win support on both sides of the aisle. And that is exactly what he did.

Mills knew something that often gets forgotten these days, which is that the more broadly a piece of legislation reflects the American people, the greater its acceptability, effectiveness, and staying power. If you’re in Congress, you’re reminded pretty much every day that giving a say to this diverse country is a choice. The body is made up of members who fiercely advocate for their views through speeches, contacts of all kinds and descriptions, public appearances, and trying to win the media over to their side. And the whole institution is a focal point for competing interests weighing in on difficult problems. It is a real cauldron.

All of these beliefs are represented in the Congress, and the legislative process is a key part of how the country works through that cacophony of competing interests. Debate, deliberation, calculation, and compromise—it’s an inefficient process that, for difficult issues, can go on for a long time. But over the course of our history, it’s been reasonably productive. 

This is why those of us who value the institution of the Congress—who actually believe in Hamilton’s words—have lamented the trend of recent decades ceding power to the presidency. The Constitution is explicit: legislative power is vested in Congress. But if that power is not protected or goes unused, it does not merely evaporate; in our system, it flows to the presidency or the judiciary. And in doing so, it passes out of the hands of the body that most closely represents the American people.

When President Trump talks of the presidency as if there were no check on it, as if, as president, he is beyond the reach of the law or of Congress, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle rightly disagree. Sometimes they serve effectively as a check, sometimes not. Sometimes partisanship gets the better of them. But for better or worse, Congress remains the spot where the crosscurrents of American popular opinion have their best chance of being heard, listened to, and acted upon. That’s one power members should never give up.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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