Mike Lee: The GOP Must Stop Filling Its Policy Void With Spin and Personality

The Tea Party-affiliated Republican touted four new pieces of legislation and warned that his party won't win until it stops clinging to an outdated agenda.
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Senator Mike Lee has a bigger incentive than most Tea Party Republicans to put the government shutdown behind him and champion a constructive policy agenda: His constituents weren't fans of his scorched-earth approach to opposition, and Utah's GOP may exploit their upset to mount a 2016 primary challenge. The caricature of a man incapable of working with Democrats isn't right. Civil libertarians across the political spectrum can attest to Lee's willingness to reach across the aisle in opposition to indefinite detention and drones. 

Does he supports anything else that might gain support outside the Tea Party caucus? In a Tuesday speech at the Heritage Foundation, he gave a harsh assessment of GOP failures over the last 30 years, and suggested a forward-looking agenda. 

His diagnosis of the problem:

As the decades pass and a new generation of Americans face a new generation of problems, the party establishment clings to its 1970s agenda like a security blanket. The result is that to many Americans today, especially the underprivileged and middle class, or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office the Republican party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform message at all. This is the reason the GOP can seem so out of touch. And it is also the reason we find ourselves in such internal disarray.

The gaping hole in the middle of the Republican party today—the one that separates the grassroots from establishment leaders—is precisely the size and shape of a new, unifying conservative reform agenda. For years, we have tried to bridge that gulf with tactics and personalities and spin. But it doesn’t work. To revive and reunify our movement, we must fill the void with new and innovative policy ideas. Today, as it was a generation ago, the establishment will not produce that agenda. And so, once again, conservatives must.

This elides the degree to which the GOP has gotten more conservative over the years. The failure of the Republican Party has been, in large part, a failure of conservatives. But let that pass, for Lee has his own vision for the future:

I submit that the great challenge of our generation is America’s growing crisis of stagnation and sclerosis—a crisis that comes down to a shortage of opportunities.

This opportunity crisis presents itself in three principal ways:

  • immobility among the poor, trapped in poverty;
  • insecurity in the middle class, where families just can’t seem to get ahead
  • and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and economic elites unfairly profit at everyone else’s expense.

A Republican Party that prioritized proposals to reform "cronyist privilege at the top," immobility among the poor, and insecurity in the middle class would be a huge change. What about specifics? What is Lee actually proposing? Four new bills, it turns out. 

Tax Reform Geared at Families

My plan calls for a 15 percent tax rate on all income up to $87,850—or $175,700 for married couples. Income above that threshold would be taxed at 35 percent. Like any good conservative tax-reform plan, my bill also simplifies the code, eliminating or reforming most deductions. But the heart of the plan is a new, additional $2,500 per-child tax credit that can offset parents’ income and payroll-tax liability. This last point is crucial. Many middle-class parents may pay no income taxes—but they do pay taxes. Working parents are not free riders ... my plan eliminates this anti-family bias in the tax code, while improving pro-growth incentives for the economy. Under my plan, a married couple with two children making the national median income of $51,000 would see a tax cut of roughly $5,000 per year.

 The Option of Flex-Time Instead of Overtime

Parents today need to juggle work, home, kids, and community. For many families, especially with young children, their most precious commodity is time. But today, federal labor laws restrict the way moms and dads and everyone else can use their time. That’s because many of those laws were written decades ago, when most women didn’t work outside the home. Because of these laws, an hourly employee who works overtime is not allowed to take comp time or flex time.

Even if she prefers it, her boss can’t even offer it. Today, if a working mom or dad stays late at the office on Monday and Tuesday, and instead of receiving extra pay wants to get compensated by leaving early on Friday to spend the afternoon with the kids, that could be violating federal law... Congress gave a special exemption from that law for government employees. This is unacceptable. The same work-life options available to government bureaucrats should be available to the citizens they serve. In May, the House of Representatives passed the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, sponsored by Representative Martha Roby of Alabama, to equalize flex-time rules for all workers. And this week I am introducing companion legislation in the Senate.

Shifting Highway Funds and Planning From Feds to States

Today, the federal highway program is funded by a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents on every gallon sold at the pump. That money is supposed to be going into steel, concrete, and asphalt in the ground. Instead, too much of it is being siphoned off by bureaucrats and special interests in Washington. And so Congressman Tom Graves and I are going to introduce the Transportation Empowerment Act. Under our bill, the federal gas tax would be phased down over five years from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents. And highway authority would be transferred proportionately from the federal government to the states.

Under our new system, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached. Instead, states and cities could plan, finance, and build better-designed and more affordable projects. Some communities could choose to build more roads, while others might prefer to repair old ones. Some might build highways, others light rail. And all would be free to experiment with innovative green technologies, and new ways to finance their projects, like congestion pricing and smart tolls. But the point is that all states and localities should finally have the flexibility to develop the kind of transportation system they want, for less money, without politicians and special interests from other parts of the country telling them how, when, what, and where they should build.

Making Federal Aid to Students More Flexible

Some combination of higher education and vocational training should at least be an option for just about everyone who graduates from high school. Yet today, the federal government restricts access to higher education and inflates its cost, inuring unfairly to the advantage of special interests at the expense of students, teachers, and taxpayers. The federal government does this though its control over college accreditation. Because eligibility for federal student loans is tied to the federal accreditation regime, we shut out students who want to learn, teachers who want to teach, transformative technologies, and cost-saving innovations. And so, in the coming days, I will be introducing the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act. Under this legislation, the existing accreditation system would remain unchanged. Current colleges and universities could continue to use the system they know.

But my plan would give states a new option to enter into agreements with the Department of Education to create their own, alternative accreditation systems to open up new options for students qualifying for federal aid. Today, only degree-issuing academic institutions are even allowed to be accredited. Under the new, optional state systems that my bill would authorize, accreditation could also be available to specialized programs, individual courses, apprenticeships, professional credentialing, and even competency-based tests. States could accredit online courses, or hybrid models with elements on- and off-campus. These systems would open up opportunities for non-traditional students—like single parents working double shifts—whose life responsibilities might make it impossible to take more than one class at a time.

They would also enable traditional students to tailor a degree that better reflects the knowledge and skills valued by employers. Innovations in vocational education and training would open new opportunities in growing fields that are hiring right now.

I'd have to study these proposals for some time to weigh in with independent judgments, but on first look they all seem like ideas that could plausibly improve public policy and that could conceivably pass in the foreseeable future. That alone makes them as compelling as any governing vision proposed by his Tea Party colleagues.

But are these mere words? 

Or is Lee going to earn our respect by taking steps to advance this vision in coming months? If he persuades colleagues that these are good ideas; if he manages to build a sizable constituency for them among the public; if he forms strategic partnerships to advance these priorities; if he builds bridges with unexpected allies; especially if he manages to pass one or more of these reforms, he'll earn back some of the respect he recently lost as someone capable of governing.

If he proposes these bills, but doesn't get any farther in advancing the prospect of their eventual passage, it won't take away from his speech; but lots of folks can give decent policy speeches. He was sent to Washington, D.C., to improve public policy. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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