BERKLEY — More than 100 Berkley High School students received a crash course in American government last week from a man who knows a thing or two about it.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., visited BHS Nov. 1 to discuss the ins and outs of the U.S. Constitution, the current political climate in Washington, D.C., the 2012 presidential election and other hot-button issues. Four classes of about 115 advanced-placement government students gathered in the BHS auditorium to hear Levin speak. They also had the opportunity to ask the senator questions about topics ranging from the U.S. economy, public education funding and foreign policy to taxes, abortion and voter identification laws.
Levin spent much of his time explaining the controversial issue of the filibuster in the Senate, which he feels is too often being misused by a handful of members to prevent important legislation from even being discussed.
“There’s only one thing you need to remember about the U.S. Senate: the majority does not rule,” he told the students. “It’s the only legislative body in the world where that happens. Just the threat of the filibuster is enough to tie up the Senate with what we’re doing. Some members are abusing our rules (…) and stopping us from getting anything done.”
Levin believes that changes must be made to break this pattern of excessive filibustering, which he pointed out is a relatively new phenomenon within the Senate.
“Some people in the Senate are just wreaking havoc with the filibuster,” he said. “I’m in favor of forcing people who are threatening to filibuster to actually do it. (…) We are prevented from voting on a regular basis because of this. The filibuster certainly serves a purpose, but we need to stop it from being abused.”
The stated purpose of the filibuster, Levin contended, is to help keep the democratic process intact and to make sure that minority viewpoints can still be heard.
“The Senate was designed to protect small people against big people,” he explained. “Nobody can be bullied in the Senate. We have to make sure that we don’t undo this unique quality. The minority voice should always be heard (…) but it should not overpower the majority.”
Levin also talked about his role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. When asked by a student about the biggest foreign policy issues facing the U.S. right now, he pointed to a pair of lingering dangers.
“The No. 1 threat to our security is Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups,” the senator said. “The No. 2 threat would be if Iran gets a nuclear weapon.”
While discussing the Presidential election, Levin vigorously defended the job that President Barack Obama has done throughout the last four years, highlighting the auto industry bailout, healthcare reform and the death of Osama Bin Laden.
“Obama was given a very tough situation,” he said. “But he didn’t complain about it — he acted on it and he got a lot of good work done. (…) Obama inherited a recession, and now we’re moving out of a recession. We are moving in the right direction.”
For all his praise of President Obama, the longtime Democrat expressed an even greater degree of criticism toward Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan.
“Romney is far too tuned-in to the needs of the rich and not tuned-in enough to the needs of the middle class,” Levin said. “One of the stark differences in this campaign (…) is that Romney opposes tax increases for the wealthy and actually wants to cut everyone’s taxes by 20 percent. Then he wants to increase defense spending by $2 trillion but won’t identify where his budget cuts will be coming from.”
Levin also pronounced Ryan’s federal budget plan as “bad news. He’s talking about massive cuts in nearly every program, including public education. (…) You cannot make significant deficit reductions without new revenues.”
At the conclusion of the event, the students presented Levin with a BHS T-shirt as a gift and thanked him for being there to speak with them. But some of those in attendance had mixed feelings about Levin’s positions and were not shy about sharing their ambivalence.
“I thought he was a very charismatic, very talented speaker, but I also thought that his views were kind of one-sided,” said BHS senior Aaron Lohrer. “He spent a lot of time focusing on Romney’s future lies instead of talking about Obama’s present lies.”
Sophomore Jacob Coutu felt that Levin did a good job of addressing foreign policy, but he was still left with some unanswered questions.
“Will we ever find out if Iran really has nuclear weapons? Are we ever going to completely get our troops out of the Middle East?” he asked. “I would have liked for him to talk about some of the big decisions that he has made with the Armed Services Committee in, say, the last year.”
BHS social studies teacher Ira Goldberg praised Levin for the level of detail that he provided on certain topics, especially for the “doctoral dissertation” that he gave on the issue of the filibuster. He was thrilled that the senator was willing to make an appearance at BHS at all, noting that school officials were only able to get him to visit due to the inclement weather that struck Washington, D.C., last week during Hurricane Sandy.
“We study government every day in our classrooms,” Goldberg said, “but this is something that really allows our students to touch their government. I think it gives a real humanizing aspect to all these things that we’ve been learning about. It’s great to be able to offer our students this type of tangible connection to their government.”
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