Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) has become a one-man policy shop for Republicans on Capitol Hill, steering the party toward an agenda focused on working-class Americans ahead of elections this fall and in 2016.
Lee, a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito who was first elected in 2010 with significant Tea Party backing, has quickly established a reputation as one of the GOP’s most active policy wonks. He has introduced legislation on everything from tax reform to higher education policy, all aimed at easing the financial strain on working class families still struggling with stagnant wages amid a slow economic recovery.
However, most of Lee’s bills are stuck in committees in the Democratic-led Senate. He knows the importance of winning a majority in the Senate this fall, and wants candidates to have an agenda that they can win with—and then implement.
"Republicans do well when they have an agenda," Lee told the Washington Free Beacon.
He noted former President Ronald Reagan’s victorious policy agenda of tax cuts for middle class families, who were grappling with soaring inflation in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, the needs of today’s families are different, Lee said.
"We have to remember that by 2016, we’ll be nearly as far from Reagan’s election in 1980 as Reagan’s election in 1980 was from D-Day," he said. "Conservative principles remain the same, but our policy proposals will have to change to meet the needs of the time."
Lee will discuss his policy proposals for the middle class with other conservative lawmakers and experts at an American Enterprise Institute event on Thursday.
Lee’s tax proposal, while simplifying and reducing tax rates, also expands the child tax credit to $2,500 per child and makes a portion of it refundable to families. Married families are effectively taxed twice in today’s system, he said—once for filing joint tax returns as a couple, and again for the cost of raising children that will pay into entitlement programs in the future.
Middle-income parents spend about $300,000 raising a child, excluding the cost of college, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Individuals who do not have kids avoid those costs, while benefiting from the children of other families who finance entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Lee has also proposed more flexible working hours under labor laws for all workers—currently only available to government employees—as well as lowering the federal gas tax, transferring more unregulated transportation funds to the states, and creating alternative state accreditation systems for higher education programs. His agenda as a whole puts more money in the pockets of families and grants them more choices about where to live, work, and send their kids to school, he said.
Lee said he also remains concerned by the lack of mobility for poor Americans and the marriage of big government and big business at the top of the income ladder.
Welfare benefits in some cases pay more than a minimum-wage job in 34 states and the District of Columbia, acting as a disincentive to work in those places, according to a study last year by the Cato Institute. Lee has proposed work requirements for means-tested programs such as food stamps and rewarding states that reduce poverty with federal grants.
"We don’t want people to have to make that kind of awful choice," Lee said of the welfare-versus-work-tradeoff.
Additionally, Lee has advocated against "cronyism" that benefits the largest companies with the most lobbyists at the expense of entrepreneurs and start-up firms. Existing businesses are able to lobby lawmakers for more regulations and subsidies, limiting the opportunities for new firms and workers to enter markets and compete with them, he said.
Lee has filed bills that would phase out most energy subsidies and the Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that offers loan guarantees to encourage foreign buyers to purchase U.S. exports.
The New York Times reported on Monday that middle-class workers during President Barack Obama’s presidency have received less income, shifted to more part-time work, or dropped out of the workforce entirely, particularly key Democratic constituencies such as young women and blacks.
"We have for too long, as conservatives, as Republicans, allowed the left to paint this caricature image of us as the party of the top 1 percent, the party of the country club," Lee said. "We’re not."
"The failed polices of the left, as we’ve seen them adopted in recent decades, have led us to a point where we see a greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, in the hands of the 1 percent, than we have previously, even since [Obama] took office," he added. "The antidote to that can be found in conservative policies."
Lee said Republicans at some point will have to coalesce around an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, but will find it difficult to do so before the midterm elections, just a few months away. They should align behind a set of principles to present to voters this fall, he added.
Recent polls show the president’s signature health care law remains unpopular. Likely voters say they would be more inclined to vote for Republicans who support repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a conservative alternative.