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Thursday, May 28, 2015
  • Wednesday, May 27, 2015 8:59 PM

    A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power... allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”

    Those were strong words, meant to spur Congress to action. Yet after a day or two, they sank without a trace. No one in the media picked up the call. No one in a position to influence the Senate or the House made a move to advance a congressional war authorization.

     
  • Wednesday, May 13, 2015 10:25 PM

    There have been encouraging signs on Capitol Hill of late that Congress’s long slide into irrelevance may be slowing.

    Agreements on Medicare reimbursements in both houses, and on Iran, No Child Left Behind, Pacific trade and other issues in various committees led last month to a chorus of relieved approval both in Washington and in the press. Less noticed, but equally important, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that Congress worked more during the first quarter of this year than the past few years, and that the amendment process in the Senate is once again functioning as it’s supposed to.

    But let’s not go overboard. Major challenges lie immediately ahead, chief among them how Congress handles the budget. Politicians on Capitol Hill are coming more to agreement. Modest bills are being passed. And we have a taste of bipartisanship. If Congress finds that it likes feeling productive, then I’ve got some suggestions for turning these first, tentative steps into full-blown progress.

     
  • Wednesday, April 29, 2015 8:20 PM

    I’ve seen a lot over my decades in politics, and not much alarms me. But I have to be blunt: Money is poisoning our political system.

    The people who matter most to a representative democracy — the ordinary voters in whose interests elected politicians are supposed to act — feel as though they’ve become an afterthought in the political process. The tidal wave of money washing over our elections, with no end in sight, is causing Americans to lose faith in the system. In that way, the course we’re on threatens the core values and principles that define us as a nation.

    Oddly, many politicians see no problem — except perhaps the inconvenient need to spend a significant portion of every day dialing for dollars. They don’t, however, believe this is corrupting. They don’t believe they’re selling their votes, or even that money influences their behavior.

    Most Americans believe differently. Poll after poll finds that about half the voters think members of Congress are corrupt. A Democracy Corps poll last summer found clear majorities across the spectrum worried about the impact of Super PAC spending as “wrong” and leading “to our elected officials representing the views of wealthy donors.”

     
  • Wednesday, April 01, 2015 6:30 PM
    Sustained and respectful consultation between the President and Congress would go a long way toward avoiding the bitter battles over foreign policy that we've seen of late.

    Congress has developed a fondness for open letters when it comes to Iran. First came the warning shot signed by 47 Republican senators that touched off a storm of criticism. Not to be outdone, the House checked in with its own bipartisan and more diplomatically stated letter to the President, warning that its members must be satisfied with any agreement before they'll vote to reduce sanctions.

    What lies behind these moves? I think Congress feels left out of foreign policy-making.

    I have considerable sympathy for this impulse. Over the decades, too much power has drifted to the President when it comes to foreign affairs. The Congress has been deferential, even timid, in allowing this to happen.

    Moreover, the administration has not done an especially good job of consulting with Congress. The President is the chief actor in foreign policy, and it's his obligation to reach out and develop a sustained dialogue with Congress on foreign policy matters. As far as I can tell, he has not done that sufficiently.

     
  • Wednesday, March 18, 2015 1:51 PM
    After Congress came a hair's breadth from shutting down the Department of Homeland Security a few weeks ago, members of the leadership tried to reassure the American people. "We're certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on CBS's "Face the Nation." Congress, he said, would not lurch from crisis to crisis.

    I wish I could be so confident. Because if you look at the year ahead, the congressional calendar is littered with opportunities to do just that.

    Next month, unless Congress acts, doctors will see a steep cut in Medicare reimbursements. In May, the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money, meaning that infrastructure projects all across the country could grind to a halt. The following month, the federal Export-Import Bank's charter runs out. By the end of summer, Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling. Then it will have to find a way of funding the government for next year, deal with across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to take hold, and make it possible for the Treasury to continue to borrow money.

     
  • Wednesday, February 18, 2015 4:09 PM
    It may not be obvious from the news coverage, but a good bit of Congress's 2015 agenda just landed on Capitol Hill with a thud. I mean this literally. The federal budget that President Obama recently submitted runs to 2,000 pages.

    This is the most important government document produced each year, so its heft is more than physical. The budget is how we decide what share of this country's economic resources we should devote to government-and how we should spend them. It's where we set out our national priorities, sorting out how to allocate money among defense, the environment, education, medical research, food safety, public works... You get the idea.

    Which is why you saw the political maneuvering begin the moment it arrived. In a press conference after President Obama submitted his budget, House Speaker John Boehner dismissed it out of hand. "The president gave the American people a good laugh yesterday," he said. Every year, politicians play some variation on this theme. I've lost count of the times I've heard a budget declared "dead on arrival."

     
  • Wednesday, February 04, 2015 4:24 PM
    You probably didn't notice, but the Senate passed a milestone a couple of weeks back. Before 2015 was a month old, senators had already had a chance to vote up-or-down on more amendments than they did in all of 2014.

    This is a promising sign that new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have meant it when he declared last year that he wants the Senate to return to the "regular order" of debate and amendments. For the last few weeks, a favorite inside-the-Beltway guessing game has been whether he'd be willing to stick with it in the face of demands, sure to come, to reduce debate and amendments and expedite approval of bills.

    I know you're thinking this is just inside baseball. Let me explain why it matters. In Washington, the line between process and policy is blurred. The policies Congress produces are forged by the process it uses, and the leaders of the two houses have great power over that process - and hence over the results. Talking about how Congress makes laws is the same as talking about what it does in those laws.

    So a return to the "regular order," on either or both sides of the Capitol, has enormous implications. There is no single solution to Congress's problems, but it's hard to imagine Congress can get past its dysfunction without adopting the regular order.

    If you're uncertain what I mean, you're not alone. There are a lot of lawmakers who have very little idea what it entails, either; because they were elected after Congress abandoned it in the 1990s. 
  • Wednesday, January 21, 2015 3:30 PM
    It didn't get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.

    I know a lot of people to whom this is good news. I know them, because I hear from them every time I speak at a public event that allows for a give-and-take with the audience. Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular, and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could be thrown out automatically has great appeal.

     
  • Friday, December 26, 2014 4:50 PM
    Recent economic news has been broadly reassuring. Retail sales are strong, November saw the best job gains in three years, the federal deficit is shrinking, the stock market is robust, and the Fed is expressing enough faith in the economy that an interest rate bump next year is considered a certainty.

    Yet the public remains unconvinced. This is partly because perceptions haven't caught up to reality. For many middle- and lower-class families, economic circumstances have not changed very much. Average wages, adjusted for inflation, have not risen in keeping with the good economic news. The median net worth of households is actually a bit less than it was in 2010, just after the official end of the recession - and the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is wider than ever. 
  • Wednesday, December 10, 2014 7:07 PM
    We are one glum country.

    Trust in the federal government is at historic lows, according to Gallup. More than half of the respondents to an October Rasmussen poll think our best days are behind us. And just a few weeks ago, an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found that the one thing Americans agree upon whatever their race or circumstances is that the system is stacked against people like them.

    Scratch an American, it seems, and you'll get a litany of complaints about our representative democracy.

    I see this defeatism all around me. When I speak to classes of university students, I almost always ask for a show of hands on whether these young people believe the U.S. is in decline or on the rise. Every time, the room is evenly split. That's a lot of people who are losing faith in our system. 

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