Mike Lee's New Crusade

With all his friends out on the campaign trail, the Utah senator is devoting himself to restoring Congress as the “first branch” of government.

Senator Mike Lee concludes a press conference on Capitol Hill in June 2015. (Susan Walsh / AP)

Having your BFFs run for president should be fun, right? Or at least moderately useful? That was what Senator Mike Lee was more or less hoping as he headed into this election cycle with not one but three of his closest Senate colleagues—Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and (until Iowa) Rand Paul—chasing the Republican nomination.

Oh, sure, Lee would have to manage the ticklish business of staying neutral. (He always demurs when asked to handicap the race.) With all the focus on his three amigos’ campaigns, it would be tougher to get attention for his own projects (such as the book he released last year). And things were bound to get a bit lonely at times, with Ted, Marco, and Rand all out gallivanting around Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. Still, Lee is among the Senate’s most serious purveyors of conservative policy—the Utah Tea-Partyer is also a favorite of his party’s intelligentsia—and much of his vision is shared by his legislative besties. So when Lee and I sat down together last spring (the week after Paul joined the POTUS pack), he was cautiously optimistic that having his like-minded brethren out on the hustings would work out to his benefit. While Lee hunkered down on the Hill, churning out policy, his more glamorous friends could bring the gospel to the masses.

Instead, the race hasn’t turned out to be much fun at all. For starters, senators running for president have bigger and better things to do than to hang out on the Hill with their colleagues. This has rendered Lee a bit like the middle-school kid left with no one to eat lunch with. Of late, he has taken to hanging out with the House Freedom Caucus folks, cooking up ways to fuel the conservative revolution. This suits the senator just fine, says Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and Lee’s outside policy consigliere. “Lee has been interested in turning the kind of things that the members who came in on the Tea Party wave talk about into concrete proposals.” Still, it’s not the same as having his usual posse around.

From a legislative standpoint, Lee’s friends on the trail can be frustratingly hard to nail down when it comes time to support a particular bill. (Looking at you on criminal-justice reform, Marco!) Worse still, every now and then one of them feels compelled to loudly bash some piece of legislation near and dear to Lee’s heart—often without even so much as a heads up. Cruz did it on criminal-justice reform in October, slamming Lee’s pet bill as both practically and politically dangerous. A couple of months later, Rubio started going after the USA Freedom Act (sponsored by Lee and backed by Rubio’s presidential rival Cruz), which reformed the government’s bulk collection of telecom data. In both cases, Lee was blind-sided, especially by Rubio’s snark last month that “If ISIS had lobbyists in Washington, they would have spent millions to support the anti-intelligence law.” It’d be enough to make a lesser man question the bonds of friendship—not to mention root for this whole presidential circus to be over so everyone could get back to focusing on the work of the Senate.

And this, at heart, is what Lee is about: the work of the Senate, or, more broadly, the legislative branch.  “He’s not looking for another job like running for president,” says Levin. “He thinks you can make a difference as a legislator.”

Lee also thinks that Congress has ceded too much of its authority to the executive branch. “We hear members of Congress complain about it almost as if we’re victims,” the senator tells me. “We are not. We are the perpetrators.” It’s so much easier, he notes, for Congress to state some “broad aspirational goal like ‘We shall have clean air’” and then just let the EPA work out the details.

So it is that, as the presidential race kicks into high gear, Lee is launching a new crusade to help Congress reclaim its status as “the first branch.” Last week, the senator rolled out the Article One Project, or A1P for all the acronym junkies out there. (The name derives from Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution, which instructs, “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”) Dreamed up by Lee and Levin, A1P comprises a bicameral clutch of conservatives looking to promote legislation to give Congress control of the budget and the regulatory system. It also seeks to dial back “executive discretion,” which, as Lee and Representative Jeb Hensarling put it in National Review, “right now allows presidents and federal bureaucrats to ignore or rewrite federal statutes, so long as they have a clever enough reason.”

The conservative media has cheered Lee’s new endeavor. Everyone else has pretty much ignored it. Which begs the question: Why on earth start this now, with no one paying attention to anyone in politics not named Trump?

“This is an opportunity to get some Republicans on the record in Congress saying that they want to reassert congressional authority,” reasons Levin. “People tend to forget that when a president from their own party gets elected.” Ideally, Levin says, a few of the presidential contenders themselves will get on board. Says Lee, “If you look at it as only something we’re concerned about because this particular president is in office, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere.”

I point out to the senator that the ongoing Trumpmania suggests that many voters (especially Republican voters) don’t long for a diminished executive so much as a full-on strong man in the Oval Office. “That’s exactly why we need efforts like this!” he insists. “People so badly want change and reform that we might actually end up further empowering a strong executive.”

Given the givens, neither Lee nor Levin expects the project to bear fruit during this chaotic season. It is, they say, more about starting a much-needed conversation.

Besides, why should the presidential candidates get to have all the fun? Levin stresses, “Lee is not going to sit back and wait for the presidential cycle to get completed before he continues his work on the Hill.”

Lee’s office, meanwhile, assures me that, the challenges of the presidential season notwithstanding, he remains, for the most part, “a happy warrior.” His communications director, Conn Carroll, emails, “He does miss his friends, but Rand is back! And he does enjoy the job and the fight.”