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Thursday, December 12, 2019
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  • BLOOMINGTON  – One of the not-so-small gifts of living in a representative democracy is that you can’t accomplish things alone. Whether you’re trying to get a stop sign put up on a dangerous corner or to change U.S. policy on greenhouse gas emissions, you have to reach out to others. And learning how to persuade, motivate, and involve them – learning the skills of active citizenship, in other words – makes this a stronger, more resilient country. So I want to make a case for building and using those skills by tackling the issues right in front of us. We all live in communities that we know better than anyone who doesn’t live there,  including the policy makers who every day make decisions on larger issues that affect our lives there. Who better than those who live in a particular community to step up, identify its problems, and then work to solve them?
  • BLOOMINGTON  — I was talking with a friend the other day about immigration. It’s one of the most divisive issues of our time, and we, too, found ourselves divided. “Our country is full,” he quoted President Trump, who said this back in April. Let’s improve the country with the people we already have, my friend added. I had a quote, too, and it’s one I still believe in. You’ll find it on the Statue of Liberty. “From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome,” it reads. And then, of course, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I welcome new immigrants and want this country to set aside the nationalistic appeals and racial prejudice that often accompany calls for restrictions. And I believe firmly that immigration makes us stronger as a nation and represents the best of what we stand for. This country is a defender of individual rights, a beacon of tolerance and equality, and a champion of the notion that offering opportunity to all who live here, regardless of national origin, yields the innovation and hard work that drive our economy and culture.
  • BLOOMINGTON  – You’re probably chuckling already. Seriously? “The joy of politics”? That was pretty much the reaction I got the other day when, in the middle of a conversation about how confrontational, adversarial, and downright unpleasant politics has become of late, I suggested that it could be both fun and a source of satisfaction. Yes, of course there are always irritations and inconveniences. And the often mean-spirited tone of today’s contentious politics is well beyond anything I encountered when I was in office. But none of this erases the satisfactions that also come with the territory. They start with the people you can meet in the political arena: Able, ambitious, articulate, often at the top of their game. They may be friends or foes, but the foes aren’t usually permanent; sometimes they become friends, as the debate moves along to other issues and you find yourself sharing common ground. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – A wave of protests is roiling Moscow. Millions of people, young and old, have been crowding the streets in Hong Kong. In Britain, members of the Conservative Party took to open revolt over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to sideline Parliament on Brexit. If democracy is dysfunctional and on the ropes worldwide, as many voices currently insist, you’d have a hard time making the case from these headlines. In fact, at a time of concern and, in many quarters, cynicism about democracy and its prospects, they remind us of a basic truth: People want a say in how they’re governed. As Winston Churchill put it back in 1944, “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.” To be sure, “democracy” is hard to define. The UN says that democracies are where “the will of the people is the source of legitimacy of sovereign states,” but that’s a broad definition.
  • BLOOMINGTON – Sometimes, you wonder if the world is doomed to descend into autocracy. Certainly, that’s what the coverage of the past few years suggests. We read about the nations that are already there, like China and Russia, of course, and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Or about countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Poland that are nominally democratic but have been trending less so. What strikes me most about this discussion of a global decline in democratic norms and values, however, is how little coverage has gone to places where democracy remains robust. How much do you read about countries that are performing well on this front, places like Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Finland, or Australia? Asking the question pretty much answers it. These are strong, stable democracies. They have a healthy electoral process, their governments function admirably, political participation is robust, and civil liberties remain core to their identity. Amid concerns about democracy’s future, they’re shining examples of its staying power. There’s no question that there’s reason for concern. 
  • BLOOMINGTON – Democracy’s premise is that ordinary citizens can make solid decisions on complex issues. But this basic principle and the structure of laws and practices erected over the centuries to safeguard it are being questioned as rarely before. It’s not just that political leaders in various western democracies seem to have little regard for the norms and procedures they inherited. It’s that public discourse is filled these days with warnings about democracy’s collapse. As the writer James Traub put it not long ago, “You’d have to go back more than a century, to the 15 years before World War I, to find another moment when so many leading thinkers … questioned democracy’s future.” Certainly, there’s reason to worry. Participating productively in our democracy has always been a serious challenge. But because of the intensely polarized environment and the enormous amount of information, both true and false, that surrounds us, making discriminating judgments has become harder. It’s not just that we face the challenge as citizens of trying to choose the best path forward in these circumstances. We now also have to discern what information is true and what’s false as we do so.
  • BLOOMINGTON  –  I’ve been struck recently by news coverage of climate change and humans’ degradation of the planet. Two opposing themes keep appearing. One is the sense that, as individuals, there’s little we can do; the forces are too large. The other – and I think many Americans would agree with this – is that as citizens of the planet we have a responsibility to protect it and to pass it on in good shape to those who follow us. So how do we reconcile those warring impulses – not just on the environment, but on many global and international issues? How, in other words, do we engage with the world? Because make no mistake, as Americans we are global citizens. It’s not just that the world has deep-seated, unavoidable problems that, if ignored, will bite us where we live. It’s that we inhabit a preeminent world power that bears a responsibility to lead. 
  • BLOOMINGTON  – A few years ago, I was at a polling place here in Indiana where a long line of people stood waiting to vote. A woman recognized me and called me over. “Why is it,” she asked, “that you politicians make it so hard and inconvenient to vote?” I thought of this the other day when I read the news reports about presidents Trump and Putin meeting and jestingly accusing one another of election meddling. The background, of course, is the pressing issue of Russian interference in US elections. American voters take elections seriously enough to stand in line – for hours, sometimes – to cast a ballot. And here were the two presidents making light of attempts to subvert the voices of ordinary people. I’d expect nothing less from Putin, but from an American president? The sad truth is, Russian meddling isn’t our only election problem. We’ve got an archaic registration process, restrictive voting practices, voting systems bedeviled by outdated technology, inadequate budgets for the voting infrastructure, and an entire nation’s worth of overloaded local elections staff. There are robust efforts afoot, by many people and groups, to suppress, not encourage, votes; much effort in this country goes into keeping some groups of people from having a say in the conduct of their government. 
  • BLOOMINGTON - The other day, someone I’ve known for years offered a pointed bit of criticism. “It’s easy for people like you to make long lists of things Congress should do to improve,” he said. “But you know good and well most of them won’t happen. So if you’re really serious, what’s the one most important thing it could do? What does Congress absolutely need to start getting itself back on track?” He was right. “People like me” — that is, people who comment publicly about all the things Congress gets wrong — often have long laundry lists of fixes, from wringing the influence of special-interest money out of the system to members of different parties spending more time together. But the most important fix? That takes some thinking. I’ve spent some time on it and have my answer. But you’re not going to like it. What’s critically important for Congress to do? Return to the regular order.
  • BLOOMINGTON  –  A few months ago, the federal debt we have accumulated over the past decades crossed the $22 trillion mark. That’s a record. And it’s surely not going to be the last. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, annual federal deficits over the next decade — the deficit is the annual figure for how much more Congress and the president opt to spend than the government takes in as revenue — are expected to average $1.2 trillion. Overall, the debt held by the public amounts to about 78% of our gross domestic product. That’s double what it was before the 2008 recession, and the CBO estimates that without significant changes, it’ll rise to 118% over the next 20 years, higher even than right after World War II. Does this matter? Back when I was in Congress, I came away confused practically every time I listened to an economist offer an opinion. Some thought it mattered immensely. Others, not at all.
  • BLOOMINGTON — There are a lot of reasons why Congress finds itself hamstrung in Washington and discounted by the people it serves at home. These include long-term trends over which it has little control: The political polarization of the country; the oceans of money that get dumped into the political process; the push by successive presidents to amass as much executive power as possible. But in the end, the demons Congress has to fight are its own. If it is to return to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion, the paths it must follow start on and wind through Capitol Hill. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the first step is to act like the co-equal branch of government our Founders intended it to be. But to get there, it needs to rehabilitate how it operates internally. For starters, Congress has gotten into some terrible legislative habits. The worst is the omnibus bill, which is emblematic of the deeply rooted issues Congress faces.
  • BLOOMINGTON  – A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a group of students and decided to start with a point-blank question: Is Congress doing a good job? There were perhaps 100 people in the room, and not a single one raised his or her hand. So I asked the question a different way: Is Congress nearly or completely dysfunctional? Most hands went up. These were not experts, of course. They were simply reflecting a broad public consensus that things are not working well on Capitol Hill. But they weren’t wrong, either. Things aren’t working well on Capitol Hill. I can tick off the problems and so can you. Congress doesn’t follow good process. It seems to have lost the ability to legislate. It’s too polarized and partisan. It’s dominated by political game-playing and the undue influence of money. It defers too readily to the president. Routine matters get bottled up. Its output is low and it simply cannot pass a budget on time.
  • BLOOMINGTON – I became active in politics in the late 1950s, got elected to Congress in 1964, and have remained engaged in one way or another every year since then. I’ve had a ringside seat for a long time. So I suppose I should not be surprised that I get asked a lot these days how American politics have changed over the last six decades. A few things stand out. When I first arrived in Congress, Americans had faith in the institutions of government. President Lyndon Johnson had actually run on a platform that we could successfully wage a war on poverty — and been elected. It seems inconceivable today that a politician of prominence would be so bold and so naïve as to propose such a thing, let alone believe that we could do it. Today, Americans have little confidence in government’s ability to deliver. And with reason; Congress can’t even pass a budget on time, and even the most routine matters get bottled up. A war successfully waged on anything domestic seems beyond its grasp.
  • BLOOMINGTON — Here’s a surprise: The skills that can be used to win in politics are increasingly the skills needed to produce good policy. I know. You look at the policy stalemates in Washington and wonder how this could be. The people who arrived there by winning elections haven’t shown much in the way of policy-making prowess. But let me explain. Politicians running for office have a choice. They can appeal to their base and count on it pushing them over the top, or they can try to build a coalition of voters. The former approach gives us more of what we already see, politicians who don’t show much interest in crafting broadly acceptable policy. But if they choose instead to run their campaigns by reaching out to a broader swath of the electorate, and if we as voters reward them for this at the polls, then they come to Washington with exactly the skills needed to make our representative democracy work.
  • BLOOMINGTON – As various House committees gear up for a season of investigations and hearings on President Trump and his administration, a lot of people are worried that progress on the nation’s challenges will grind to a halt. I would argue just the opposite: The wheels of government are turning in favor of accountability. Our system rests squarely on the notion that government officials, whether elected or appointed, need to be accountable to the people they govern. They are responsible for their behavior, their decisions, and the policies they support. They are answerable for their use, and misuse, of the funds and resources they’re given. They are, or ought to be, just as accountable for the remedies they fail to pursue as for the actions they do take. Accountability safeguards our Constitution, our laws, and our democracy.
  • 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.
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  • The Azar, Verma feud festers
    "The federal agency I lead, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is taking swift action to implement it." - Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Director Seema Verma, in  Chicago Tribune op-ed. That same day, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar went on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fix News — one of President  Trump’s favorite TV shows — and claimed credit for driving the same initiative. “POTUS and I envision a healthcare system with patients in the center,” Azar tweeted from the Fox News set. “We’re fighting powerful interests to deliver honesty and transparency in healthcare.” The feud between these two Hoosiers who control more than $1 trillion in annual federal spending has transfixed The White House West wing and Washington. President Trump has asked Vice President Mike Pence to quell the Azar/Veerma feud.
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  • Into the impeachment vortex ...
    Here we go. Where America ends up in early 2020 after the fourth presidential impeachment that got underway this week is anyone's guess. 

    When I wrote the Sept. 19 HPI cover story - "The Double Dog Impeachment Dare"  - the Ukraine quid pro quo scenario was just beginning, becoming a full congressional/media vortex suck. Regular Hoosiers I know aren't paying much attention and are polarized by President Trump.

    We'll restate past thoughts on these alleged high crimes and misdemeanors: 1. Impeachments are messy and unpredictable. 2. Impeachment is an American tragedy. 3. Impeachment will result in unintended consequences. 4. Hoosiers are prepared to render a verdict on President Trump at the ballot box next November. 5. If we get into a mode where we're impeaching an American president every 20 years, the fragile American experiment will be doomed. 
    - Brian A. Howey, publisher
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