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Sunday, February 17, 2019
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  • BLOOMINGTON  – Over a lifetime in politics, I’ve met a lot of interesting, impressive politicians. But those I truly admired were men and women who were adept at the arts both of politics and legislating, a rarer combination of talents than you’d hope for in our representative democracy. They’re a reminder these days of what consummate skill looks like. For instance, Wilbur Mills, a Democrat from Arkansas who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, was a master of legislative detail. When he brought changes to the tax law to the floor, members of the House of both parties would simply ask him questions, rather than challenge him, because his grasp of the internal revenue code was so overwhelming. When Mills was on the floor, it was never really an equal debate. The same held for Jim Wright of Texas and Hale Boggs of Louisiana, also both Democrats. They were great orators with vibrant, unique voices that drew audiences to the House floor and galleries simply to hear them. They seldom referred to notes, but I suspect they practiced — the chuckle in the right place, the extended pause at the perfect moment. They were masters at using humor as an effective weapon to counter an opponent and deflect critics.
  • BLOOMINGTON  – Looking back at 2018’s weather-related news, it seems clear that this was the year climate change became unavoidable. I don’t mean that the fires in California, coastal flooding in the Carolinas, and drought throughout the West were new evidence of climate change. Rather, they shifted the national mindset. They made climate change a political issue that cannot be avoided. The Earth’s climate changes all the time. But what we’re seeing today is different, the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather. Wet places are becoming wetter; dry places are growing dryer; where it was hot a generation ago, it’s hotter now; where it’s historically been cool, it’s growing warmer. The global impact of human activity — specifically, the burning of hydrocarbons — is shuffling the deck. And we’re only beginning to grasp the impact on our political and economic systems. Warmer overall temperatures, for instance, have lengthened the growing season across the U.S. by about two weeks compared to a century ago. But the impact on fruit and grain production isn’t just about the growing season. Plant diseases are more prevalent, and the insects that are vital to healthy agricultural systems are struggling. Insects that spread human diseases, like mosquitoes and ticks, are flourishing.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The other day, a friend asked what surprised me most about politics. This may seem strange, but I’d never really thought about the question. My response was off the cuff but heartfelt. The biggest surprise is also among my biggest disappointments with American political life, the ongoing effort by politicians to suppress votes. Yes, it’s gone on for years. And in some respects, limiting the vote has been a feature of American politics since the beginning, when only white men with property could cast ballots. But when I began in politics, I assumed those days were past us, and everyone was on board with the idea that the more people who vote, the better. Boy, was I naïve. The truth is, people work hard to prevent other people from voting.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Patriotism has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. French President Emanuel Macron recently criticized President Trump and other world leaders for their “us versus them” view of patriotism. “By putting our own interests first,” he said, “with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: Its moral values.” Meanwhile, just ahead of the midterm elections, the New York Times noted that two clashing visions of patriotism were heading to the polls. President Trump and Republicans saw patriotism as “conspicuous displays of respect for the traditional expressions of America — the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance.” Democrats, by contrast, saw it as protecting the norms and institutions of our democracy. I don’t entirely buy this distinction, at least when it comes to partisan labels. I’ve known plenty of Democrats who consider it patriotic to honor the flag, the military, and the Pledge. And I’ve known a lot of Republicans who value our democratic traditions.
  • BLOOMINGTON –  We live in a divided country. And I don’t just mean politically. Our economy is creating winners and losers, with no clear way up the ladder for millions of Americans. The last few decades have produced great inequality of wealth accompanied by unequal access to the levers of power. We’re split along regional lines. We’re divided along rural and urban lines. We increasingly struggle with differences of race, religion and class. We’re also divided politically and ideologically. Abortion, gun rights, same-sex marriage, the use and abuse of police power, curbs on corporate power, environmental protection: These issues elicit strong feelings and cut deeply through the electorate. They’re also reflected in the overt partisan divisions that show up in elections, and thus in legislatures and Congress.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Back in 1883, Teddy Roosevelt wrote an essay on what it takes to be a true American citizen. He did not mince words: “The people who say that they have not time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community,” he wrote. “Their place is under a despotism.” He went on: “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics.” I hope you’ll forgive his gender-specific language. He wrote at a time when women didn’t even have the vote. But his essay has been on my mind lately, because his sentiment — that living in a representative democracy demands work from all of us — is as timely now as it was then. A lot of people these days intuitively grasp that our system needs our involvement if we’re to safeguard it. So, what should we do — especially if politics has to share space in our lives with family and jobs?
  • BLOOMINGTON – Resolving the conflicts dividing our country will require a devotion to facts, dialogue and compromise. In a world riven by tension, there’s one skill that stands above all others: The ability to resolve conflict. It is the paramount challenge of our time. There are so many divisions that fracture our communities, states and nations that the ability to create common ground — to bring people together rather than drive them apart — has become an indispensable political need. I’ve seen first-hand its importance in Congress as part of a legislative process that, at least at the time, was mostly focused on resolving differences; and as co-chair of two key national committees that were constituted along partisan lines, the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group. Here’s what I’ve learned: First, to resolve conflict you have to be committed to doing just that. When the 9/11 Commission met — at a time when many people just wanted to assign blame for the attacks on our country — we were often encouraged to take a confrontational approach by issuing hundreds of subpoenas that would force officials to testify and to turn over documents.
  • BLOOMINGTON - For the most part, we Americans value expertise. We want our physicians to possess knowledge and experience. We want our lawyers to know the law inside out. We want our clergymen, our engineers, our farmers to bring the kind of proficiency and skill to their work that comes only with familiarity and practice.  So, here’s a question: Why is it that the more expertise politicians' gain in their field, the more we deride them? I’ve been involved in politics, in one way or another, for most of my life. That makes me a politician. And I’ve had more than a few people refuse to shake my hand because they believed that might somehow taint them. Many Americans think politicians are looking out for themselves, beholden to special interests and party leaders, incapable of working for the common good. Politicians may disappoint us, frustrate us or even anger us. They certainly make mistakes. But here’s the thing:  We cannot solve our problems at any level — local, state or federal — without skilled politicians. They’re indispensable to the system.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Members of Congress over the years have delegated much of their power to other branches, especially the executive, so that they can escape accountability for tough choices. We’re at a watershed moment in American political history. Our Congress — I’m talking about the people’s body, the institution created by our founders, and not just the men and women who currently inhabit it — is in deep trouble. And no one seems to be offering hope. Its public standing is abysmal, occasionally dropping into the single digits in polling. Very few people seem to respect it, even on Capitol Hill. Small surprise, as the Pew Research Center reported the other day, that “More members of the U.S. House of Representatives are choosing not to seek reelection to that body than at any time in the past quarter-century.” 
  • BLOOMINGTON – One wonders whether we can ever find the will to negotiate and compromise on difficult issues. We need leaders who can rise above the polarization and divisiveness, and instill a sense that we are all in this together. Have you already made up your mind about how you’re going to vote – at least by party – in this year’s important elections? I hope not. Because to serve our nation well at this troubled time in its political history, you should be looking for certain qualities in the politicians you favor. Ideology, party affiliation, positions on key issues, these are important considerations, but this year demands more from us as voters. To explain why, I need to talk about the current political environment. It is the most agitated I’ve seen in decades. The electorate is badly divided; the parties are split internally and vis-à-vis one another; the national mood is sour; our democratic institutions are unproductive; and our political leaders cannot seem to cooperate with one another, much less engage substantively on the crucial issues we face as a nation. Not surprisingly, politicians face a restive, discontented electorate.
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s past time for comprehensive reform of Congress. The changes I advocate will not come about without citizen action. The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are, “We the People.” The Constitution itself, our institutions of government, the democratic process – all were established to give Americans a voice in their own governance. We are still striving to make that vision real for all, but we are closer than ever. So let me ask you some questions about Congress today. Do you think the voice of ordinary Americans resounds strongly in its hallways and chambers? Can you recall Congress in the last few years successfully dealing with an issue that directly affected your life? Does Congress produce legislation that resolves our differences and brings us closer together? Do you believe that the political system produces members of Congress who fairly and effectively represent the diversity and complexity of this country and are addressing our real, long-term challenges? I thought not.
  • BLOOMINGTON – I worry about the growth of the lobbying industry and its outsized weight compared to that of the ordinary American. One of the quirks of life in Washington, D.C., is that pretty much the only people who don’t refer to lobbyists by that name are, well, lobbyists. They’re “policy advisors,” or “strategic counsel,” or “public relations advisors,” or lawyers, or even just “consultants.” Whatever they’re called, though, they play a huge role in making policy. For the most part, they are able, well-informed, and skillful at what they do. Their aim is to develop a cordial relationship with policy-makers, whether elected to Congress or serving in some federal agency, so that they can advance their points of view. And policy-makers rely on them for information, for research and writing, for persuasive arguments, and, of course, for political support.
  • BLOOMINGTON – It’s built into the idea of representative democracy that making change is difficult, which is why many people get discouraged. But few things can exceed the satisfaction of helping shape the direction and success of your community or nation. One of the gifts of living in a representative democracy is that voting is only one of the rights it confers. For ordinary people who want to make change, who in some way want to alter their neighborhood or town or state or even the nation, the promise exists that by their own efforts they can do so. This is a precious gift. But it is not an easy one to enjoy. Even in a democracy, bringing about significant change requires hard work, a level of intensity and commitment beyond the ordinary responsibilities of citizenship. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – Our political system appears dysfunctional and occasionally on the verge of breakdown. But however dire things appear in Washington, I believe we have it within us to set the country back on a productive track. I’ve been reminded recently of the old cowboy song, “Home on the Range.” You know the line, “Where never is heard a discouraging word”? That is not the United States right now. Pretty much everywhere I turn, all I hear is discouragement. Our institutions of government are paralyzed. We face serious national problems with no effective response in sight – or even, in some cases, an acknowledgement that a problem exists. We’re fighting over racism, identity, security and culture. Our political system appears dysfunctional and occasionally on the verge of breakdown. All of this is serious. But the question we have to confront is not, “What’s going wrong?” It’s, “How do we respond?” Or, at the risk of seeming hopelessly out of step with the national mood, “How do we set about making a great country still greater?”
  • BLOOMINGTON – Our nation is in a dark period. Can we pull ourselves out? Keep this in mind: Our institutions are far more durable than any single president or any single historical period. An interesting thing keeps happening to me. Every few days, someone – an acquaintance, a colleague, even a stranger on the street – approaches me. They ask some version of the same question: What can we do to pull ourselves out of this dark period? For the many Americans who respect representative democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law, there’s reason to be concerned. The president is off to a rocky start; he’s unproductive and undignified at home and derided on the world stage. Congress struggles to get its bearings. In the country at large, forces of intolerance and division are at loose on the streets and on the nightly news.
  • BLOOMINGTON – One reason I consider myself fortunate to have led a life in politics is that, over time, I’ve had a chance to work with nine presidents. From Lyndon Johnson through Barack Obama, I’ve talked policy, politics and, sometimes, the trivial details of daily life, with them. I met JFK twice for brief conversations. I don’t know our current president, but I’ve gained valuable perspective from his predecessors. Johnson was a deal-maker, always trying to figure out how to get your vote. He came into office with a clear vision of what he wanted to do, and on the domestic side notched accomplishments unmatched in recent decades. Yet he was brought down by the Vietnam War, a war he could neither win nor quit. Richard Nixon, one of the more complex personalities to inhabit the office, often spoke to me about his mother and her home in Indiana. Highly intelligent, brimming with energy, extremely ambitious, he was also uneasy in social settings and could be vindictive. He focused intently on policy, especially foreign policy, and yet had a flawed moral compass.
  • BLOOMINGTON – The heart of representative democracy rests in the communication between the electorate and elected officials. We should make this conversation more fruitful and effective. Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do – but we have to exercise it. I don’t just mean going to a town hall meeting and yelling, or shooting off a letter or email. I mean making an appointment to sit down with your representative – in his or her office, at a cafe in the district, or wherever else you can meet – and holding a real conversation. We don’t do this often enough, perhaps because most people think it’s impossible to arrange. It’s not, although it might take patience to get an appointment with a busy representative. And to my mind, it’s the most effective way for citizens to communicate with their representatives. This is important because the heart of a representative democracy does not lie in its electorate, or even its elected officials. It rests in the communication between them, in the give and take that allows each to understand the other.
  • BLOOMINGTON – There’s no shortage of threats to our democracy. Russian meddling in elections, the vulnerability of state voting systems to hacking, politicians’ assaults on the media, and political leaders’ growing fondness for policy-making in secret – all of these pose a real challenge to our system’s viability. As worrisome as these are, there’s one problem that may be the greatest threat of all: Americans’ loss of faith in politics and democratic institutions. This has been building for decades, dating back to the Vietnam War and Watergate, and the long-term economic challenges – recession, inflation, widening inequality, the shifting nature of work, a series of financial crises – that grew out of that era. It’s rooted in our system’s apparent inability to overcome deep divisions in the country: Urban and rural, liberal and conservative, the mass of ordinary Americans and the elite, divides over race and ethnicity and gender politics and... well, you know the list as well as I do. The truth is, in the face of this teeming, complicated, diverse society, our political institutions have performed inadequately.
  • BLOOMINGTON – A lot of people want what I do from the media and feel they’re not getting it: More facts and fewer opinions; more investigative reporters and fewer pundits; more substance and less fluff; more policy exploration and less politics.  I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I’m a traditionalist. Old-fashioned, even. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder “Is Truth Dead?” on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was. Straightforward, responsible journalism is an indispensable public asset, a cornerstone of democratic life. This is threatened by the trends reshaping the media landscape. With less consensus around information and data, the cohesiveness of our society is diminished.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Using the debt ceiling as a means of reining in excessive spending has not worked. Our political efforts should go toward finding long-term solutions that restrain spending and boost tax revenue. Back when I was in Congress, I got a call from a constituent one day. I’d recently voted to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, and the man was more than irate. “Don’t you understand that we’ve got a serious spending and debt problem in this country?” he asked. “Why did you cast this idiotic vote?” He was right about the problem. But he was wrong about the vote. With Congress fast approaching another debt-ceiling vote and yet one more “fiscal cliff” drama taking shape, I’d like to explain why that is. If you ask members of Congress which regular vote they most dread, this one would probably top the list. It’s hard to explain to constituents why raising the debt ceiling is necessary, as indeed I had trouble explaining to my own constituent.
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  • Pence visits Auschwitz for first time
    “It seems to me to be a scene of unspeakable tragedy, reminding us what tyranny is capable of. But it seems to me also to be a scene of freedom’s victory. I traveled in our delegation with people who had family members who had been at Auschwitz — some had survived, some not. But to walk with them and think that two generations ago their forebears came there in box carts and that we would arrive in a motorcade in a free Poland and a Europe restored to freedom from tyranny is an extraordinary experience for us, and I’ll carry it with me the rest of our lives.” - Vice President Mike Pence, who visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland on Friday along with Second Lady Karen Pence and Polish President Andrzej Duda and First Lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda. It was Pence's first time at the scene where Nazi Germany murdered more than 1.1 million Jews and other groups during the World War II Holocaust.
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  • Our first national park at Indiana Dunes
    It continues to amaze me how many folks from central and southern Indiana have never visited Indiana's sea, known to most of us as Lake Michigan. If you need another reason to take a couple hour trip northward on U.S. 31, U.S. 421 or I-65, thank President Trump for our first national park. It's now the Indiana Dunes National Park. The move was included in the spending package compromise that Trump signed on Friday, inserted in the legislation with the help of U.S. Sen. Todd Young and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky. 

    Visclosky said, "I also am heartened that because of the support of our U.S. Senators, the entire Indiana Congressional delegation, and numerous Northwest Indiana organizations, we have successfully titled the first National Park in our state. This action provides our shoreline with the recognition it deserves, and I hope further builds momentum to improve open and public access to all of our region’s environmental wonders.”

    The Dunes includes white sand beaches, trails and an array of flora and bogs, with a front row seat to the Chicago skyline. It richly deserves to be Indiana's first national park.
    - Brian A. Howey, publisher
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