Mike Lee’s Plan for a Congress That Works for Main Street

Main St. Agenda by from The Weekly Standard, November 13, 2014

As Republican euphoria over the November 4 election begins to subside and more practical considerations emerge, a looming question is whether the various factions within the Republican party will be able to work together.  One recent but little-noted change in Senate leadership may have increased the likelihood of success:  On September 16, Republican senators elected Senator Mike Lee of Utah as the new chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, the Senate’s conservative caucus.  Replacing Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Lee will be given the reins of an organization that has the ability to unite Senate conservatives and help set not only the legislative agenda but also reset the tone of what used to be the world’s greatest deliberative body.

The reform-minded Lee has embraced his new role with gusto, releasing a plan two days after last week’s election whose title made no effort to hide its ambition: “Mike Lee’s Plan to Fix Congress.”

In it, Sen. Lee lays out five steps for his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate “to help repair the dysfunctional legislative branch we have inherited, rebuild Congress’s reputation among the American people, and by extension slowly restore the public’s confidence in the Republican Party.”  As Lee rightfully notes, “the American people’s current distrust of their public institutions is totally justified.”

Senator Lee’s first step in repairing Congress is rebuilding that trust. While he blames both parties for the current dysfunction, he believes that inviting more input from outside the Republican establishment will help restore the public’s trust. “Republicans leaders,” Lee states, “have every reason to get out in front of every issue, every major bill, every project, and get everyone on board before the train leaves the station.”

He goes on:

“We should throw open the doors of Congress, and restore genuine representative democracy to the American republic. No more ‘cliff’ crises.  No more secret negotiations.  No more take-it-or-leave-it deadline deals.  No more passing bills without reading them.  No more procedural manipulation to block debate and compromise.  These are the abuses that have created today’s status quo—the status quo Republicans have been hired to correct.”

Senator Lee’s second step challenges Republicans to avoid the trap of appearing to “govern” through cronyism—passing bills that have bipartisan support primarily because of their backing from business interests.  He says “the easiest bipartisan measures to pass are almost always bills that directly benefit Big Business, and thus appeal to the corporatist establishments of both parties.”

The trap, as Lee explains, “is that Republicans in fact can’t ‘govern’ from the House and Senate alone—especially without a Senate supermajority.  We can clearly articulate our views and advance our ideas, and then see where we can work with the president and congressional Democrats.  But we have to do these things in that order.  We should find common ground that advances our agenda, rather than let the idea of common ground substitute for our agenda.”

To combat cronyism, Lee writes, “We could pass legislation winding down the Export-Import Bank or the Overseas Private Investment Corporation” and “could—and really, must—eliminate the taxpayer bailouts for big insurance companies in Obamacare’s ‘risk corridors’ program.”

For his third step, Senator Lee highlights what he rightly calls “the biggest strategic and legislative question the new Republican Congress will face in 2015,” the federal budget. To tamp down the infighting that is sure to occur amongst Republicans during the compilation of a massive and complicated budget, Lee argues there are three consensus principles the budget must achieve to guide and unite the GOP:  “1. Balance within ten years (without accounting gimmicks); 2. Not raise taxes, and; 3. Repeal Obamacare.”

There is currently much debate in Republican circles on how to use Congress’s one bite at the “reconciliation” apple, particularly as it relates to Obamacare.  Lee argues that “the whole point of reconciliation is that it allows the majority one chance to pass something with only simple majorities.  For Republicans in 2015—not as a matter of ideological purity but of practical coalitional unity—that one thing has to include repealing Obamacare.”  However, such efforts at repeal would have a lot more political power if they were paired with an actual alternative to Obamacare that could unite conservatives, fix what the government had broken even before Obamacare was passed, and prevent Obama from framing the debate as a (false) choice between Obamacare and putting “insurance companies back in charge of Americans’ health care.”

Senator Lee’s fourth step is a call to change the way Republicans approach efforts to “cut” the budget.  He seeks to change the well-worn conversation by making efforts to fix broken federal programs a requisite part of funding them, or as he simply puts it, “Fund it? Fix it.”

Lee cites examples of wasteful spending from the federal highway trust fund to the Defense Department that should resonate on some level with Americans of all political persuasions.  He argues “that if there is a good reason for Congress to fund a program, that in and of itself is a good reason to continually improve it.”

To do this, Lee argues that Congress’s recent flawed approach to the federal budget—one that lurches from budget crisis to budget crisis year after year—must end:

“We should put an end to ‘omnibus,’ all-or-nothing spending packages, and instead insist on consideration of each appropriations bill in regular order—with hearings, amendments, and specific votes.  This is how the Constitution protects Americans from waste and exploitation, after all.”

Lee’s fifth and final step pays homage to another reform-minded member of Congress: “Ryan-ize the Committees.”  In other words, don’t be afraid of developing big, transformative proposals.

As Lee notes,

“The most important policy development in the Republican Party in the last decade was not undertaken by party leaders in the House, Senate, or White House….Instead, that work was conducted by Congressman Paul Ryan when he became the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee in 2007.”

Ryan did something novel in Washington.  He laid out a long-term plan that actually attempted to address the budgetary problems every Republican congressional candidate runs on fixing, but somehow doesn’t get around to once under the Capitol dome.  Despite the obvious risk Ryan took in giving Democrats something at which to aim their fire, Lee recalls that in 2011, when Republicans took over the House, many of Ryan’s ideas became the “de facto positions of the Republican party.”

Lee summarizes, “So the fifth step to a healthy Republican majority in the one hundred and fourteenth Congress is to use congressional committees to begin developing the agenda for the one hundred and fifteenth, and one hundred and sixteenth, and one hundred and seventeenth Congresses, too.”

Senator Lee’s five-point plan will surely meet plenty of resistance, but his overarching message will likely tap into the feelings of a broad swath of Americans:

“The cliché that Washington doesn’t work is not right….Washington does work, for Washington.  For many years, Congress has worked perfectly well for so-called ‘stakeholders’ on Wall Street, K Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue.  The challenge for the new Republican majority is to put Congress back to work for Main Street.”

In 1997, a beleaguered Apple revitalized its diminished brand by encouraging people to “think different.”  Time will tell if Senator Lee’s efforts to get his party’s leadership to break out of its status-quo mindset can pay similar dividends for a somewhat resurgent, but still brand-challenged, GOP.

© 2014 Weekly Standard LLC. Reprinted with permission.