MIKE LEE

UNITED STATES SENATOR, UTAH
LEE.SENATE.GOV
AN AGENDA FOR
OUR TIME
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INTRODUCTION
AN AGENDA FOR OUR TIME
The four speeches in this collection represent a key part of my effort
over the past three years to reinvigorate the Republican Party and
inspire the conservative movement to produce a positive policy
reform agenda aimed at the greatest challenges of our generation.
When I arrived in Washington in 2011, I joined a Republican Party
that had been put in the position of saying “no” a lot by a Democratic-
controlled Congress intent on fulfilling President Obama’s campaign
promise of “fundamentally transforming the United States of
America.” But while minority parties always have to oppose, they
cannot grow into majorities unless they also propose. As I saw it, the
Republican Party needed to do a better job articulating a positive
conservative vision for society and connecting that vision to a
concrete policy agenda.
This conservative vision, as I explain in the first speech, is one of
social solidarity and mutual cooperation, buttressed by the twin
pillars of American freedom: a free enterprise economy and a
voluntary civil society. These institutions exist and operate in the
vital space between the government and the individual where organic
communities form and networks of economic opportunity and social
cohesion are built.
While not inherently hostile toward government, the conservative
vision sees the role of government as protecting that space, rather
than trying to control or replace it. Our vision recognizes that the
more power government accumulates and consolidates, the more it
tends to become unfair, inefficient, unaccountable, and harmful to
the healthy functioning of the free market and civil society. Thus
a true conservative reform agenda must do more than just cut
big government—it also has to fix broken government. And with
a government as broken as ours, the first step in this effort is to
thoughtfully diagnose the problem.
In the remaining three speeches I lay out a conservative diagnosis
of our current government dysfunction and offer some potential
remedies—some of my own and some from other reform-oriented
conservatives.
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In my view the greatest domestic challenge of our generation is
America’s large and growing Opportunity Deficit. 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 twist policy to unfairly profit at
everyone else’s expense.
The Left assumes this inequality is a sign of market failure or insufficient
government regulation. But the fact is that bad government policies
are too often the cause of unequal opportunity. For the same kind
of dysfunctional big government that unfairly excludes the poor and
middle class from being able to earn their success on a level playing
field sometimes unfairly exempts the wealthy and well-connected
from having to earn their success.
These speeches are not the culmination of a conservative reform
agenda, but merely the beginning. With much of the difficult work
still ahead of us, they are meant to reorient the Republican Party
and direct the creation of its agenda toward the goal that Abraham
Lincoln set forth over 150 years ago: “to lift artificial weights from
all shoulders… clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, … [and]
afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
Mike Lee
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
WHAT CONSERVATIVES ARE FOR
WHATS NEXT FOR CONSERVATIVES
BRING THEM IN
OPPORTUNITY, CRONYISM, AND
CONSERVATIVE REFORM
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WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
“Lee might be called the GOP’s renaissance man because he
so obviously relishes ideas on an impressive variety of issues,
and is constantly working to come up with innovative and new
conservative solutions for modern times.”
– World Net Daily
“Pro tip for all potential 2016 candidates looking for a tax cut that
helps parents, boosts growth, and doesn’t blow up the budget: Give a
call to Senator Mike Lee.”
– National Review
“Senator Mike Lee and others here are proposing incredibly sound
policies to provide incentives for child rearing families to give them
the kind of support that they need through our tax code.”
– Former Governor Jeb Bush
“Lee’s view is that focusing on eliminating government favoritism,
corporate welfare, and barriers to competition is the right answer
to the inequality challenge. This agenda accepts as valid many
populist economic critiques from the left but offers an alternative to
regulation and mandates, rejecting technocratic tweaks that seek to
mitigate the ramifications of government policy in favor of restoring
consumer power and dramatically limiting Washington’s ability to
pick winners and losers.”
– The Wall Street Journal
“Lee has been proselytizing for a “comprehensive anti-poverty,
upward-mobility agenda” — making him one of the few Republican
politicians talking in any sustained way about stalled economic
mobility, stagnant middle-class wages and economic inequality…
Mike Lee’s conception of the tea party’s future is hardly
predominant within the movement, but it is fully consistent with
Republican success. And it might even help ensure it.”
– The Washington Post
“[I am] encouraged by [Senator Lee’s] policy entrepreneurship to
promote upward mobility and economic security”
– Congressman Paul Ryan
“Lee is slowly changing the soul of the party.”
– Townhall
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“Credit where it’s due: Lee is out with a new tax plan that’s much
better and actually addresses the needs of the middle class.”
– Business Insider
“I can’t say enough good things about this speech on family-friendly
tax reform by Utah Senator Mike Lee. It is a beautifully written
argument for a Republican tax agenda that prioritizes the interests
of middle-class and struggling working parents.”
– Pete Spiliakos, First Things
“Senator Mike Lee of Utah has authored a family-friendly tax-reform
proposal and delivered a biting speech opposing crony capitalism.”
– National Review Online
“To see a prominent conservative politician take up the cause and
offer the sort of vision of it that Lee did in his remarks today, is a
cause for great encouragement and hope. … Encouraging signs are
few and far between these days, but this was a big one.”
– Yuval Levin
“Republican leaders would be wise to listen”
– Wall Street Journal
“Senator Mike Lee of Utah has authored a family-friendly tax-reform
proposal and delivered a biting speech opposing crony capitalism.”
– National Review Online
“Senator Lee’s proposal is only one step in the right direction. But
what’s particularly encouraging about his proposal is that it would
lift the sagging economic fortunes of many working-class families
by targeting their payroll taxes. Let’s hope more Republicans (and
Democrats) take a page from Lee’s playbook and seek policies that
renew the flagging economic fortunes of family life in all too many of
our nation’s poor and working class communities.”
– The Atlantic
“The open-ended nature of many federal subsidies for higher-ed
borrowing is a big contributor to college costs in the first place.
Bringing down prices down will mean more competition and more
alternatives, along the lines of what Republican senators Mike Lee
(Utah) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) have proposed.”
– National Review Online
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WHAT CONSERVATIVES ARE FOR
In recent years, as the federal government has expanded its reach
and consolidated its power more than any other time in our
history, conservatives have tended to define ourselves in terms of
what we are against. While it is important to oppose the policies
of an overreaching and unsustainable federal government, we
must also make the positive case for conservatism and articulate
to the American people what conservatives are for. Conservatism
is ultimately not about the policies we support or oppose, but the
kind of society those policies would allow the American people to
create together. The conservative vision for society is one of social
solidarity and interdependence between neighbors and friends,
families and congregations, city councils and local associations,
and business owners and customers, who are free to pursue their
own happiness and choose to do so together. The institutions
that facilitate this pursuit—and help solve public problems that
arise along the way—are not distant, bureaucratic agencies, but
a free enterprise economy, voluntary civil society, and local and
state governments. Central to this vision is a strong, but limited,
federal government that protects the space for these institutions to
thrive and helps all Americans gain access to them. For our federal
government to maintain, without exceeding, this indispensible role
it must reject policy privilege that bestows unfair advantages to the
wealthy and well-connected, and it must embrace policy diversity
among America’s 50 states and keep policy decisions as close as
possible to the people affected by them.
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WHAT CONSERVATIVES ARE FOR
What Conservatives Are For
Remarks to the Heritage Foundation
U.S. Senator Mike Lee
April 22, 2013
I. Introduction
In Washington, it is common for both parties to succumb to easy
negativity. Republicans and Democrats stand opposed to each other,
obviously, and outspoken partisanship gets the headlines.
This negativity is unappealing on both sides. That helps explain why
the federal government is increasingly held in such low regard by
the American people.
But for the Left, the defensive crouch at least makes sense.
Liberalism’s main purpose today is to defend its past gains from
conservative reform.
But negativity on the Right, to my mind, makes no sense at all.
The Left has created this false narrative that liberals are for things,
and conservatives are against things.
When we concede this narrative, even just implicitly, we concede
the debate… before it even begins.
And yet too many of us – elected conservatives especially – do it
anyway. We take the bait. A liberal proposes an idea, we explain why
it won’t work, and we think we’ve won the debate.
But even if we do, we reinforce that false narrative… winning battles
while losing the war.
This must be frustrating to the scholars of the Heritage Foundation,
who work every day producing new ideas for conservatives to be for.
But it should be even more frustrating to the conservatives around
the country that we elected conservatives all serve.
After all, they know what they’re for: why don’t we?
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II. Agenda and Vision
Perhaps it’s because it’s so easy in Washington to forget.
In Washington, we debate public policy so persistently that we can
lose sight of the fact that policies are means, not ends.
We say we are for lower taxes, or less regulation, or spending
restraint. But those are just policies we advocate. They’re not what
we’re really for. What we’re really for are the good things those
policies will yield to the American people.
What we’re really for is the kind of society those policies would
allow the American people to create, together.
III The Vision
Together.
If there is one idea too often missing from our debate today that’s it:
together.
In the last few years, we conservatives seem to have abandoned
words like “together,” “compassion,” and “community”… as if their
only possible meanings were as a secret code for statism.
This is a mistake. Collective action doesn’t only – or even usually -
mean government action.
Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of community to the Left,
when it is the vitality of our communities upon which our entire
philosophy depends.
Nor can we allow one politician’s occasional conflation of
“compassion” and “bigger government” to discourage us from
emphasizing the moral core of our worldview.
Conservatism is ultimately not about the bills we want to pass, but
the nation we want to be.
If conservatives want the American people to support our agenda
for the government, we have to do a better job of showing them our
vision for society. And re-connecting our agenda to it.
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We need to remind the American people – and perhaps, too, the
Republican Party itself – that the true and proper end of political
subsidiarity is social solidarity.
Ours has never been a vision of isolated, atomized loners. It is a
vision of husbands and wives; parents and children; neighbors
and neighborhoods; volunteers and congregations; bosses and
employees; businesses and customers; clubs, teams, groups,
associations… and friends.
The essence of human freedom, of civilization itself, is cooperation.
This is something conservatives should celebrate. It’s what
conservatism is all about.
Freedom doesn’t mean “you’re on your own.” It means “we’re all in
this together.”
Our vision of American freedom is of two separate but mutually
reinforcing institutions: a free enterprise economy and a voluntary
civil society.
History has shown both of these organic systems to be extremely
efficient at delivering goods and services. But these two systems are
not good because they work. They work because they are good.
Together, they work for everyone because they impel everyone…
to work together. They harness individuals’ self-interest to the
common good of the community, and ultimately the nation.
They work because in a free market economy and voluntary civil
society, whatever your career or your cause, your success depends
on your service. The only way to look out for yourself is to look out
for those around you. The only way to get ahead is to help other
people do the same.
What, exactly, are all those supposedly cut-throat, exploitive
businessmen and women competing for? To figure out the best way
to help the most people.
That’s what the free market does. It rewards people for putting their
God-given talents and their own exertions in the service of their
neighbors.
Whatever money they earn is the wealth they create, value they add
to other people’s lives.
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No matter who you are or what you’re after, the first question
anyone in a free market must ask him or herself is: how can I help?
What problems need to be solved? What can I do to improve other
people’s lives?
The free market does not allow anyone to take; it impels everyone
to give.
The same process works in our voluntary civil society.
Conservatives’ commitment to civil society begins, of course,
with the family, and the paramount, indispensable institution of
marriage. But it doesn’t end there.
Just as individuals depend on free enterprise to protect them from
economic oppression, families depend on mediating institutions to
protect them from social isolation.
That is where the social entrepreneurs of our civil society come in.
Just like for-profit businesses, non-profit religious, civic, cultural,
and charitable institutions also succeed only to the extent that they
serve the needs of the community around them.
Forced to compete for voluntary donations, the most successful
mediating institutions in a free civil society are at least as innovative
and efficient as profitable companies.
If someone wants to make the world a better place, a free civil
society requires that he or she do it well.
Social entrepreneurs know that only the best soup kitchens, the
best community theater companies, and the best youth soccer
leagues – and for that matter, the best conservative think tanks –
will survive.
So they serve.
They serve their donors by spending their resources wisely. They
serve their communities by making them better places to live. And
they serve their beneficiaries, by meeting needs together better than
they can meet them alone.
Freedom doesn’t divide us. Big government does.
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It’s big government that turns citizens into supplicants, capitalists
into cronies, and cooperative communities into competing special
interests.
Freedom, by contrast, unites us. It pulls us together, and aligns our
interests.
It draws us out of ourselves and into the lives of our friends,
neighbors, and even perfect strangers. It draws us upward, toward
the best version of ourselves.
The free market and civil society are not things more Americans
need protection from. They’re things more Americans need access
to.
Liberals scoff at all this.
They attack free enterprise as a failed theory that privileges the
rich, exploits the poor, and threatens the middle class.
But our own history proves the opposite.
Free enterprise is the only economic system that does not privilege
the rich. Instead it incentivizes them to put their wealth to
productive use serving other people… or eventually lose it all.
Free enterprise is the greatest weapon against poverty ever
conceived by man. If the free market exploits the poor, how do
liberals explain how the richest nation in human history mostly
descends from immigrants who originally came here with nothing?
Nor does free enterprise threaten the middle class. Free enterprise
is what created the middle class in the first place.
The free market created the wealth that liberated millions
of American families from subsistence farming, opening up
opportunities for the pursuit of happiness never known before or
since in government-directed economies.
Progressives are equally dismissive of our voluntary civil society.
They simply do not trust free individuals and organic communities
to look out for each other, or solve problems without supervision.
They think only government – only they – possess the moral
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enlightenment to do that.
To be blunt, elite progressives in Washington don’t really believe
in communities at all. No, they believe in community organizers.
Self-anointed strangers, preferably ones with Ivy League degrees,
fashionable ideological grievances, and a political agenda to redress
those grievances.
For progressives believe the only valid purpose of “community” is to
accomplish the agenda of the state.
But we know from our own lives that the true purpose of our
communities is instead to accomplish everything else.
To enliven our days. To ennoble our children. To strengthen our
families. To unite our neighborhoods. To pursue our happiness, and
protect our freedom to do so.
This vision of America conservatives seek is not an Ayn Rand novel.
It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a society
of “plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other
fellow, too.”
IV. The Agenda
The great obstacle to realizing this vision today is government
dysfunction. This is where our vision must inform our agenda.
What reforms will make it easier for entrepreneurs to start new
businesses? For young couples to get married and start new
families? And for individuals everywhere to come together to bring
to life flourishing new partnerships and communities?
What should government do – and just as important, not do – to
allow the free market to create new economic opportunity and to
allow civil society to create new social capital?
We conservatives are not against government. The free market
and civil society depend on a just, transparent, and accountable
government to enforce the rule of law.
What we are against are two pervasive problems that grow on
government like mold on perfectly good bread: corruption and
inefficiency.
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It is government corruption and inefficiency that today stand
between the American people and the economy and society they
deserve.
To combat those pathologies, a new conservative reform agenda
should center around three basic principles: equality, diversity, and
sustainability.
A. Equality/Corruption
The first and most important of these principles is equality.
The only way for the free market and civil society to function… to
tie personal success to interpersonal service… to align the interests
of the strong and the weak… is to have everyone play by the same
rules.
Defying this principle is how our government has always corrupted
itself, our free market, and our civil society.
In the past, the problem was political discrimination that held the
disconnected down. Today, government’s specialty is dispensing
political privileges to prop the well-connected up.
In either case, the corruption is the same: official inequality …
twisting the law to deem some people “more equal than others”…
making it harder for some to succeed even when they serve, and
harder for others to fail even when they don’t.
And so we have corporate welfare: big businesses receiving direct
and indirect subsidies that smaller companies don’t.
We have un-civil society: politicians funding large, well-connected
non-profit institutions based on political favoritism rather than
merit.
We have venture socialism: politicians funneling taxpayer money to
politically correct businesses that cannot attract real investors.
We have regulatory capture: industry leaders influencing the rules
governing their sectors to protect their interests and hamstringing
innovative challengers.
The first step in a true conservative reform agenda must be to end
this kind of preferential policymaking. Beyond simply being the
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right thing to do, it is a pre-requisite for earning the moral authority
and political credibility to do anything else.
Why should the American people trust our ideas about middle-class
entitlements… when we’re still propping up big banks?
Why should they trust us to fix the tax code while we use their tax
dollars to create artificial markets for uncompetitive industries?
Why should they trust our vision of a free civil society when we give
special privileges to supposed non-profits like Planned Parenthood,
public broadcasting, agricultural check-off programs, and the
Export-Import Bank?
And perhaps most important, why should Americans trust us at all,
when too often, we don’t really trust them? When we vote for major
legislation… negotiated in secret… without debating it… without
even reading it… deliberately excluding the American people from
their own government?
To conservatives, equality needs to mean equality for everyone.
B. Diversity/Federalism
The second principle to guide our agenda is diversity. Or, as you
might have heard it called elsewhere: “federalism.”
The biggest reason the federal government makes too many
mistakes is that it makes too many decisions. Most of these are
decisions the federal government doesn’t have to make – and
therefore shouldn’t.
Every state in the union has a functioning, constitutional
government. And just as important, each state has a unique political
and cultural history, with unique traditions, values, and priorities.
Progressives today are fundamentally intolerant of this diversity.
They insist on imposing their values on everyone. To them, the fifty
states are just another so-called “community” to be “organized,”
brought to heel by their betters in Washington.
This flies in the face of the Founders and the Constitution, of
course. But it also flies in the face of common sense and experience.
The usurpation of state authority is why our national politics is so
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dysfunctional and rancorous.
We expect one institution – the federal government – to set
policies that govern the lives of 300 million people, spread across a
continent. Of course it’s going to get most of it wrong.
That’s why successful organizations in the free market and civil
society are moving in the opposite direction.
While government consolidates, businesses delegate and
decentralize. While Washington insists it knows everything, effective
organizations increasingly rely on diffuse social networks and
customizable problem solving.
We should not be surprised that, as Washington has assumed greater
control over transportation, education, labor, welfare, health care,
home mortgage lending, and so much else, all of those increasingly
centralized systems are failing.
Conservatives should seize this opportunity not to impose our ideas
on these systems, but to crowd-source the solutions to the states.
Let the unique perspectives and values of each state craft its own
policies, and see what works and what doesn’t.
If Vermont’s pursuit of happiness leads it to want more government,
and Utah’s less, who are politicians from the other 48 states to tell
them they can’t have it? Would we tolerate this kind of official
intolerance in any other part of American life?
A Pew study just last week found that Americans trust their state
governments twice as much as the federal government, and their
local governments even more.
This shouldn’t be a surprise – it should be a hint.
State and local governments are more responsive, representative,
and accountable than Washington, D.C. It’s time to make them more
powerful, too.
In the past, conservatives given federal power have been tempted to
overuse it. We must resist this temptation. If we want to be a diverse
movement, we must be a tolerant movement.
The price of allowing conservative states to be conservative is
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allowing liberal states to be liberal.
Call it subsidiarity. Call it federalism. Call it constitutionalism. But
we must make this fundamental principle of pluralistic diversity a
pillar of our agenda.
C. Sustainability
And that brings us to our third guiding principle.
Once we eliminate policy privilege and restore policy diversity, we
can start ensuring policy sustainability.
Once the federal government stops doing things it shouldn’t, it can
start doing the things it should, better.
That means national defense and intelligence, federal law
enforcement and the courts, immigration, intellectual property, and
even the senior entitlement programs whose fiscal outlook threatens
our future solvency and very survival.
Once we clear unessential policies from the books, federal
politicians will no longer be able to hide: from the public, or their
constitutional responsibilities.
Congress will be forced to work together to reform the problems
government has created in our health care system.
We can fundamentally reform and modernize our regulatory system.
We will be forced to rescue our senior entitlement programs from
bankruptcy.
And we can reform our tax system to eliminate the corporate
code’s bias in favor of big businesses over small businesses… and
the individual code’s bias against saving, investing, and especially
against parents, our ultimate investor class.
That is how we turn the federal government’s unsustainable
liabilities into sustainable assets.
V. Conclusion
The bottom line of all of this is that conservatives in that (the
capitol) building need to start doing what conservatives in this
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building already do: think long and hard about what we believe, why
we believe it, and most of all, remember to put first things first.
For conservatives, the first thing is not our agenda of political
subsidiarity – it’s our vision of social solidarity.
It is a vision of society as an interwoven and interdependent
network of individuals, families, communities, businesses, churches,
formal and informal groups working together to meet each other’s
needs and enrich each other’s lives.
It is of a free market economy that grants everyone a “fair chance
and an unfettered start in the race of life.”
It is of a voluntary civil society that strengthens our communities,
protects the vulnerable, and minds the gaps to make sure no one
gets left behind.
And it is of a just, tolerant, and sustainable federal government that
protects and complements free enterprise and civil society, rather
than presuming to replace them.
This vision will not realize itself. The Left, the inertia of the status
quo, and the entire economy of this city stand arrayed against it.
Realizing it will sometimes require conservatives to take on
entrenched interests, pet policies, and political third-rails. Many of
these will be interests traditionally aligned with – and financially
generous to – the establishments of both parties.
And sometimes, it will require us to stand up for those no one
else will: the unborn child in the womb, the poor student in the
failing school, the reformed father languishing in prison, the single
mom trapped in poverty, and the splintering neighborhoods that
desperately need them all.
But if we believe this vision is worth the American people being for,
it’s worth elected conservatives fighting for.
What we are fighting for is not just individual freedom, but the
strong, vibrant communities free individuals form.
The freedom to earn a good living, and build a good life: that is what
conservatives are for.
Thank you very much.
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WHATS NEXT FOR CONSERVATIVES
In order for the Republican Party to put forward a unifying
conservative candidate for president in 2016, we must first develop
a unifying conservative agenda today—one that bridges the gap
between the party’s grassroots and establishment leaders and
addresses the great challenge of our generation: America’s large
and growing Opportunity Deficit. The shortage of opportunities
in this country afflicts every level of our society. At the bottom of
the economy there is a crisis of immobility, where families and
communities are trapped in poverty, sometimes for generations,
and are disconnected from the networks of opportunity that
more affluent Americans take for granted. At the same time, this
opportunity deficit exists at the top of the economy in the form of
crony capitalism and special-interest privilege, where political and
economic elites collude to make it easier for preferred Washington
insiders to succeed, and harder for their competitors to get a fair
shot. Finally, our nation’s shortage of opportunities affects the
middle class, where the hallmarks of the American Dream—from
family stability and work-life balance to affordable education and
health care—have grown too elusive for too many. A conservative
reform agenda must address all three levels of this Opportunity
Deficit, beginning first with the middle class, America’s engine
of economic growth and the source of our exceptionalism. After
decades of poorly designed federal policies that have inflated the
cost of, and restricted access to, the staples of middle-class security
and opportunity, we must develop innovative policy reforms for
health care, education, home ownership, work-life balance, and the
cost of raising children.
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WHATS NEXT FOR CONSERVATIVES
What’s Next for Conservatives
Remarks to the Heritage Foundation
U.S. Senator Mike Lee
October 29, 2013
Thank you very much. It’s wonderful to be back at the Heritage
Foundation.
It has been quite a month in Washington.
It began with our effort to stop Obamacare — a goal that all
Republicans share even if we have not always agreed about just how
to pursue it. And it is ending with powerful practical proof of just
why stopping Obamacare is so essential.
This law is unaffordable and unfair… and it’s getting worse all the
time. As of today, President Obama’s policy is to fine any American
who does not buy a product that his bungled website will not sell
them.
And they call us unreasonable.
Every week, thousands of Americans get letters from their insurance
companies, announcing their suspension of coverage, or shocking
price increases. Because of Obamacare, Americans are losing their
jobs, wages, and hours. And when in July the president exempted
big businesses from the hardships of this law, but not ordinary
Americans, I felt I had to take a stand.
I am proud of my friend Ted Cruz and the dozens of others –
including Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans – who
fought Obamacare, continue to fight it, and will not stop fighting it.
But a month like the one we have been through should lead us not
only to re-commit to this essential, ongoing struggle, but also to step
back and ask ourselves where we should be headed more generally.
What do we do next, not only to stop Obamacare… but to advance a
larger, positive vision of America, and craft a practical plan to get us
there? What’s next for conservatives?
That is the question I would like to try to answer today.
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One of conservatives’ defining virtues is our insistence on learning
from history. And to help answer the question, “what’s next?,” I
think the most instructive history that conservatives can learn from
today is our own.
In particular, I refer to the history of the conservative movement
and the Republican Party in the late 1970s. There are many things
conservatives today should take from that era, including hope and
encouragement… but also an urgent challenge.
Allow me to begin at the beginning.
By 1977, the Republican Party was in disarray. The party
establishment had been discredited by political failure and policy
debacles, foreign and domestic. A new generation of grassroots
conservatives was rising up to challenge the establishment.
The culmination of that challenge was Ronald Reagan’s 1976
primary campaign against a far-less conservative, establishment
incumbent. That campaign failed, of course, and was derided by
Washington insiders as a foolish “civil war” that ultimately served
only to elect Democrats.
In other words, we have been here before.
And of course, we know now that Reagan and the conservative
movement were vindicated in 1980.
So it is tempting for conservatives today to believe that history is on
the verge of repeating itself, that our struggles with the Republican
establishment are only a prelude to pre-ordained victory… and that
our own vindication – our generation’s 1980 - is just around the
corner.
But there is still a piece missing, a glaring difference between the
successful conservative challenge to the Washington establishment
in the late 1970s, and our challenge to the establishment today.
Much of the difference can be found in what happened between
1976 and 1980 – the hard, heroic work of translating conservatism’s
bedrock principles into new and innovative policy reforms.
In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk observed that “conservatives
inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their
convictions to fit the time.”
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That is precisely what the conservatives of the late 1970s did. The
ideas that defined and propelled the Reagan Revolution did not
come down from a mountain etched in stone tablets.
They were forged in an open, roiling, diverse debate about how
conservatism could truly meet the challenges of that day. That
debate invited all conservatives and as we know, elevated the best.
There was Jack Kemp, advancing supply-side economics to combat
economic stagnancy.
There were James Buckley and Henry Hyde, taking up the cause of
the unborn after Roe v. Wade.
There was Milton Friedman, promoting the practical and moral
superiority of free enterprise.
There were Cold Warriors like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpartrick,
challenging the premise of peaceful coexistence and moral
equivalence with the Soviets.
There were Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, arguing that
the “mediating institutions” of civil society protected and promoted
human happiness more effectively than big government programs.
There were Professors Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, challenging
the received wisdom of constitutional interpretation laid down by
the Warren Court.
There were think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and
the new Cato Institute, and a flowering of grassroots organizations
around the country.
And of course, in the middle of it all, there were Paul Weyrich, Ed
Fuelner, Joseph Coors and The Heritage Foundation, specifically
founded to chart a new, conservative direction for public policy in
America.
Together, that generation of conservatives transformed a movement
that was anti-statist, anti-communist, and anti-establishment… and
made it pro-reform.
Contrary to the establishment’s complaints, conservatives in the
late 1970s did not start a “civil war.” They started a (mostly) civil
debate.
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Because of that confident and deeply conservative choice – to argue
rather than quarrel, to persuade rather than simply purge - the
vanguards of the establishment never knew what hit them.
The bottom line was that in 1976, the conservative movement found
a leader for the ages… yet it still failed.
By 1980, the movement had forged an agenda for its time… and
only then did it succeed.
That, my fellow conservatives, is the lesson our generation must
take from our movement’s “revolutionary era” – and the enormous
and exhilarating challenge it presents to us today.
What that generation did – comprehensively re-expressing
conservative convictions to fit the time – has not been done
since. Conservative activists and intellectuals are still providing
new energy and producing new ideas. But on the whole, elected
Republicans and candidates have not held up our end.
Instead of emulating those earlier conservatives, too many
Republicans today mimic them – still advocating policies from a
bygone age.
It’s hard to believe, but by the time we reach November 2016, we
will be about as far – chronologically speaking – from Reagan’s
election as Reagan’s election was from D-Day!
Yet as the decades pass and a new generation of Americans faces 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 to 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 G.O.P. 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
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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.
We must.
And three recent efforts show that we still can.
Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, and Jeff Flake’s crusade against earmarks,
Paul Ryan’s heroic work on Medicare reform, and Rand Paul’s
stand against domestic drone-strike authority all demonstrate that
thoughtful, idea-driven conservatism is as powerful today as it has
ever been.
It’s time for another Great Debate, and we should welcome all input.
Grassroots and establishment. Conservatives and moderates.
Libertarians and traditionalists. Interventionists and non-
interventionists. Economic conservatives and social conservatives.
All are part of our movement, and all are vital to our success – so all
should be welcome in this debate.
There are still nearly three years before Republicans will have a
chance to select a new, unifying conservative leader. But together
we can start debating and developing a new, unifying conservative
agenda right now.
Where do we begin?
A generation ago, conservatives forged an agenda to meet the
great challenges facing Americans in the late 1970s: inflation, poor
growth, and Soviet aggression… along with a dispiriting pessimism
about the future of the nation and their own families.
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:
1. immobility among the poor, trapped in poverty;
2. insecurity in the middle class, where families just can’t seem
to get ahead;
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3. and cronyist privilege at the top, where political and
economic elites unfairly profit at everyone else’s expense.
The Republican Party should tackle these three crises head on.
First, we need a new, comprehensive anti-poverty, upward-mobility
agenda designed not simply help people in poverty, but to help and
empower them to get out.
Here, my home state of Utah can be a guide. A recent study found
the Salt Lake City metropolitan area to be the most upwardly
mobile region in the United States.
In a addition to a well-managed, limited government where jobs
and opportunity abound, Utah is home to an enormously successful
private welfare system led by churches, businesses, and community
groups and volunteers.
We understand that, as it is lived in America, freedom doesn’t mean
you’re on your own. Freedom means we’re all in this together.
This agenda must include but also transcend welfare reform.
Additionally, we need to reform education, housing, immigration,
health care, and our criminal justice and prison systems.
This new agenda must recognize that work for able-bodied adults is
not a necessary evil, but an essential pathway to personal happiness
and prosperity.
And it should also force Republicans and Democrats to acknowledge
that there is another marriage debate in this country – one
concerning fatherless children, economic inequality, and broken
communities - that deserves as much public attention as the other.
Second, we need a new, comprehensive anti-cronyism agenda, to
break up the corrupt nexus of big government, big business, and big
special interests.
We need a new corporate tax code and regulatory system to
eliminate lobbyists’ loopholes and giveaways, level the playing field
between businesses, big and small, and foster a dynamic, globally
competitive private sector.
We need to end subsidies that unfairly favor some businesses and
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industries over others. And the Republican Party must make a
fundamental commitment to end its support for corporate welfare in
any form – including for the Big Banks.
The Left today no longer represents the “little guy,” but the crony
clients of the ever-expanding special-interest state. Progressives
have become the Party of Wall Street, K Street, and Pennsylvania
Avenue. We must become the party of Main Street, everywhere.
Which brings me to the third essential piece of our new agenda: a
new conservatism of the working and middle class.
Today, working families’ take-home pay is flat.
But the staples of middle-class security and opportunity – health
care, education, home ownership, work-life balance, and children –
are becoming harder to afford all the time.
Progressives say we just need more programs to give working
families more government money. But as we have seen once again
over the last five years, big government creates opportunity for the
middle men at the expense of the middle class.
And it only masks the broken policies that artificially raise costs and
restrict access in the first place. Instead, conservatives need new
ideas to address the root causes of those problems.
The first and most important policy goal Republicans must adopt to
improve the lives of middle-class families is, and will remain, the full
repeal of Obamacare.
It’s important to understand why.
Health care is one of the main reasons why the cost of living in
the middle class is increasing too quickly for many Americans to
keep up. At the same time, it is the main reason why government
spending and debt are out of control.
The law the Democrats enacted on a party-line vote in 2010 is going
to make both of those problems worse - accelerating healthcare
costs both for families and the government.
At the same time, Obamacare poses very serious threats to our
constitutional system, to the relationship between Washington
and the states, to individual liberty and conscience rights, to the
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strength of our economy, and to the quality of our healthcare
system.
That puts healthcare right at the center of what conservatives
need to be thinking about. And it means our movement has to be
intensely engaged not only in the fight to repeal, but in the debate to
replace Obamacare.
That debate is not over. It’s only just beginning.
It took Obamacare to get Republican healthcare policy innovation
off the sidelines, but we’re finally in the game. And today,
conservative ideas are not only superior to Obamacare – they are
superior to the old status-quo before Obamacare.
The House Republican Study Committee has introduced a
comprehensive health reform plan – led by Representatives Steve
Scalise and Phil Roe. The Heritage Foundation proposed its own
healthcare reform package as part of the Saving the American
Dream plan, which I introduced in the Senate last year. It included,
among other things, a universal tax credit to buy health insurance,
with extra help for those with lower incomes.
I know my friend Paul Ryan and others are working on their own
healthcare plans that will continue to improve the debate.
And this is as it should be.
Too many in Washington seem to believe that on any issue,
Republicans should either have one plan – one that everyone
supports in lockstep – or no plans. But unity cannot come at the
expense of creativity. The day will come when Republicans need a
healthcare plan – today we need ten!
Conservatives are supposed to believe in the wisdom of markets. So
let’s trust the marketplace of ideas. If we want policy innovation, we
need to innovate policy!
On healthcare, we have been. And we need more of that kind of
innovation - especially to meet the broader range of problems
confronting the middle class.
To do my part, today I want to talk about four pieces of legislation
specifically designed to address four leading challenges facing
middle-class families today:
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1. the cost of raising children;
2. the difficulties of work-life balance;
3. the time Americans lose away from work and home, stuck in
traffic;
4. and the rising costs of and restricted access to quality higher
education.
These bills won’t solve every problem under the sun. Raising a
family isn’t supposed to be easy.
But each would restore to working families more of the freedom
they deserve to pursue their happiness: to earn a good living and
build a good life.
Perhaps the most basic challenge facing middle-class families is how
expensive it has become for couples to simply start and grow their
families: the exploding costs of raising children.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the cost of raising a
child to maturity in the United States today is about $300,000.
Even adjusting for inflation, that’s 15% higher than in our parents’
generation.
But even that number doesn’t count foregone wages, or child care
and college, both of which have seen rampant inflation in recent
decades as well.
All told, according to demography writer Jonathan Last, “you’re
talking $1.1 million to raise a single child.”
As Last puts it, for a family making the median income:
“Having a baby is like buying six houses, all at once. Except that you
can’t (legally) sell them—and after 13 years they’ll tell you they hate
you.”
Here again, Democrats say the solution is new programs to give
parents more of other people’s money. I say we let middle-class
parents keep more of their own money!
And so tomorrow, I will be introducing in the Senate the “Family
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Fairness and Opportunity Tax Reform Act.”
My plan calls for a 15% tax rate on all income up to $87,850 – or
$175,700 for married couples. Income above that threshold would
be taxed at 35%.
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.
Actually, when it comes to Social Security and Medicare, parents
pay twice: first when they pay their payroll taxes, just like everyone
else, and then again, by bearing the enormous costs of raising their
kids, who will grow up to not only pay taxes, but cure diseases, and
invent the next iPhone, and most importantly, provide their parents
with grandkids!
So 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.
For middle-class families, that’s money – their own money, right
away – to get out of debt, move into a new neighborhood with better
schools, afford child care, help a mom or dad scale back from full
time to part time, or even to stay at home with young children.
That is pro-family, pro-growth conservative reform.
Another struggle facing working families is the constant challenge
of work-life balance. 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.
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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.
That sounds unfair, especially to parents. But how do we know for
sure? Because 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.
There are real problems in this world, some of which must be
addressed by government action. The fact that most working
parents would prefer to spend more time with their families is not
one of those problems. And Congress needs to stop punishing them
for trying to do so.
The federal government also needs to open up America’s
transportation system to diversity and experimentation, so that
Americans can spend more time with their families in more
affordable homes, and less time stuck in maddening traffic.
House-hunting middle class families today often face a Catch-22.
They can stretch their finances to near bankruptcy to afford a home
close to work.
Or they can choose a home in a more affordable neighborhood so
far away from work that they miss soccer games, piano recitals, and
family dinner while stuck in gridlocked traffic.
The solution is not more government-subsidized mortgages or
housing programs. A real solution involves building more roads.
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More roads, bridges, lanes, and mass-transit systems. Properly
planned and located, these projects would help create new jobs, new
communities, more affordable homes, shorter commuting times,
and greater opportunity for businesses and families.
Transportation infrastructure is one of the things government is
supposed to do – and conservatives should make sure it is done
exceptionally well.
Unfortunately, since completing the Interstate Highway System
decades ago, the federal government has gotten pretty bad
at maintaining and improving our nation’s transportation
infrastructure.
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
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should build.
For the country as a whole, our plan would mean a better
infrastructure system, new jobs and opportunities, diverse localism,
and innovative environmental protection.
And for working families, it could mean more access to quality,
affordable homes, less time on the road… and making it home in
time for dinner with the kids.
And finally, there is perhaps no barrier to middle-class security
and opportunity more frustrating than those surrounding higher
education. While it’s true that college has never been for everyone…
as we transition from an industrial economy to an information
and service-based economy, post-secondary education cannot be a
luxury available only to a select few.
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
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programs, individual courses, apprenticeships, professional
credentialing, and even competency-based tests. States could
accredit online courses, or hybrid models with elements on and
offcampus.
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.
Qualified unions, businesses, and trade groups could start to
accredit courses and programs tailored to their evolving needs.
Churches and charities could enlist qualified volunteers to offer
accredited classes and training for next to nothing. States could use
innovative systems to attract new opportunities and businesses,
investing in their own future by investing in the human capital of
their citizens.
Imagine having access to credit and student aid for:
• a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in
music accredited by the New York Philharmonic;
• college-level history classes on-site at Mount Vernon or
Gettysburg;
• medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic;
• taking massive, open, online courses offered by the best
teachers in the world, from your living room or the public
library.
Brick-and-ivy institutions will always be the backbone of our higher-
education system, but they shouldn’t be the only option.
If these new models were to succeed, they would create a virtuous
cycle. Traditional colleges would be impelled to cut waste, refocus
on their students, and embrace innovation and experimentation as
part of their campus cultures.
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This reform could allow a student to completely customize her
transcript – and “college” experience – while allowing federal aid to
follow her through all of these different options.
Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, on-line and
on-campus credits a la carte, pursuing their degree or certification
at their own pace… while bringing down costs to themselves, their
families, and the taxpayers.
This is what conservative reform should be trying to create: an
open, affordable, innovative higher education system to better serve
and secure all Americans in a global information economy.
Taken together, some more take-home pay, more time with the kids,
a shorter commute, and more access to college won’t necessarily
revolutionize our society, or cause the oceans to recede, or make
everyone rich.
What they – and other conservative reforms – could and should do
is make our economy a little stronger, our society a little fairer, and
life a little better for America’s moms, and dads, and children.
And that’s a mandate for leadership in any generation.
There is obviously much more to be done. But the point I’ve tried to
make – and the lesson I hope we take – is that the Republican Party,
at its best, is a Party of Ideas.
It is ideas that unite and inspire conservatives. The leaders of
Reagan’s generation understood that. And we must, too.
Especially in the wake of recent controversies, many conservatives
are more frustrated with the establishment than ever before. And we
have every reason to be.
But however justified, frustration is not a platform. Anger is not an
agenda. And outrage, as a habit, is not even conservative.
Outrage, resentment, and intolerance are gargoyles of the Left.
For us, optimism is not just a message – it’s a principle. American
conservatism, at its core, is about gratitude, and cooperation, and
trust, and above all hope.
It is also about inclusion. Successful political movements are about
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identifying converts, not heretics. This, too, is part of the challenge
before us.
In his 1977 CPAC speech effectively kicking off that era’s great
conservative debate, Ronald Reagan said:
“If we truly believe in our principles, we should sit down
and talk. Talk with anyone, anywhere, at any time if it
means talking about the principles for the Republican Party.
Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive
property of conservative activists.”
Do we have the same spirit of charity and confidence in our ideas
today? If we do not, this moment and opportunity will pass us by.
We will lose, and we will deserve to lose.
And rest assured, in that unfortunate event, it will not be the
indifferent Republican establishment that profits from our failure.
It will be a parade of progressives who will continue to lead our
country, unabated, further away from our hopes, and our values,
and our ability to do anything about it.
If our generation of conservatives wants to enjoy our own defining
triumph, our own 1980 – we are going to have to deserve it. That
means sharpening more pencils than knives. The kind of work it will
require is neither glamorous nor fun – and sometimes it isn’t even
noticed. But it is necessary.
To deserve victory, conservatives have to do more than pick a fight.
We have to win a debate. And to do that, we need more than just
guts. We need an agenda.
Our generation of conservatives has big shoes to fill, and a lot of lost
time to make up. So, let’s get to work.
Thank you very much.
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BRING THEM IN
It has been more than 50 years since President Johnson declared
the federal government’s “war on poverty,” yet for all the trillions
of dollars spent to create a dizzying array of national programs, the
poverty rate has hardly budged. Standards of living have improved,
and government transfers have made poverty more tolerable, but
far too many families, neighborhoods, and communities remain
stuck at the bottom of our economy, often for generations. While
the Left clings to the same big government, top-down policies
that have failed since the 1960s, conservatives are in a position
to offer a new, comprehensive anti-poverty and upward-mobility
agenda designed not simply to help people in poverty, but to
help and empower them to get out. Because true poverty is not
so much an absence of money as it is an absence of opportunity,
an effective anti-poverty agenda must focus on helping the most
vulnerable and underprivileged Americans access those social and
economic networks where human opportunities are created—our
free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society. This means
reforming the poverty traps put in place by misguided government
policies, including those that penalize marriage, discourage work,
shut-out families from affordable housing, trap low-income children
in failing schools, and leave reformed offenders languishing in prison
rather than helping them transition back into their homes, their
communities, and the economy.
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BRING THEM IN
Bring Them In
Remarks to the Heritage Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Forum
U.S. Senator Mike Lee
November 13, 2013
Thank you very much.
It’s always great to join with the Heritage Foundation in any context.
But being a part of this Anti-Poverty Forum is a true privilege.
Members of my staff have been here all day, taking copious notes,
and hopefully collecting all the business cards and white papers they
can get their hands on.
It is of course a tragedy that we have to be here at all. Though the
Bible says the poor will always be with us, it’s still hard to accept
why, in a nation with a $15 trillion economy, the poor are still with
us.
And yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon
Johnson’s famous “War on Poverty” speech, we all know the
statistics.
Despite trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to eradicate poverty since
the late 1960s, the poverty rate has hardly budged. And just last
week, the Census Bureau reported that today, more than 49 million
Americans still live below the poverty line.
Today, a boy born in the bottom 20% of our income scale has a 42%
chance of staying there as an adult. According to the O.E.C.D., the
United States is third from the bottom of advanced countries in
terms of upward economic mobility.
A recent study in Oregon found that the Medicaid program – which
provides health insurance to the poor – produces basically no health
improvements for its beneficiaries.
A study last December on the Head Start program, issued by the
Obama Administration itself, found that what few academic benefits
three- and four-year olds do gain from the program all but disappear
by end of the first grade.
We know that poor men and women are less likely to get married
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and stay married, that 30% of single mothers are living in poverty,
and that their children are less likely to rise out of poverty
themselves when they grow up.
We know that participation in civil society, volunteering, and
religion are deteriorating in poor neighborhoods – compounding
economic hardship with social isolation.
And we know these trends cut across boundaries of race, ethnicity,
and geography.
All of this might lead some to the depressing conclusion that – 50
years after Johnson’s speech - America’s war on poverty has failed.
But the evidence proves nothing of the sort.
On the contrary, I believe the American people are poised to launch
a new, bold, and heroic offensive in the war on poverty… if a
renewed conservative movement has the courage to lead it.
First, let’s be clear about one thing.
The United States did not formally launch our War on Poverty
in 1964, but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and
the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness.
For more than two hundred years, the United States – through
trial and error, through good times and bad – has waged the most
successful war on poverty in the history of the world. The United
States has become so wealthy that it is easy to forget that, as
Michael Novak once noted, most affluent Americans can actually
remember when their own families were poor.
Upward mobility has never been easy. It has always and everywhere
required backbreaking work, personal discipline, and at least a little
luck. But if upward mobility was not universal in America, it was the
norm.
From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty – we
were winning. The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty
were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our
free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society.
We usually refer to the free market and civil society as
“institutions.” But really, they are networks of people and
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information and opportunity.
What makes these networks uniquely powerful is that they impel
everyone – regardless of race, religion, or wealth - to depend not
simply on themselves or the government, but on each other. For all
America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation
has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community
and cooperation.
In a free market economy and voluntary civil society, no matter
your career or your cause, your success depends on your service.
The only way to get ahead is to help others do the same. The only
way to look out for yourself is to look out for your neighbors.
Together, these twin networks of service-based success enabled
millions of ordinary Americans to make our economy very wealthy
and our society truly rich… long before Lyndon Johnson tried to do
better by growing and centralizing government authority.
These human – and humane – networks empowered Americans,
unlike any people on earth or in history, to protect not just
themselves but each other from both material want and social
isolation.
Now, progressive ideologues reject all this. They do not trust
individuals to join together voluntarily and organically to improve
each other’s lives and meet common challenges.
As President Obama said in his second inaugural:
“No single person can train all the math and science teachers
we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the
roads and networks and research labs that will bring new
jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we
must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
But by “together,” of course, he meant only “government.”
This discredited mindset – which insists collective action can
only mean state action - is itself a kind of poverty. It rejects social
solidarity in favor of political coercion, and voluntary communities
for professional community organizers. It distrusts and denies
the bonds of cooperation and service that represent the highest
expression of our dignity.
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Look at any thriving marriage, friendship, church, charity, Little
League, historical society, theater company, PTA, neighborhood or
business. What makes America exceptional – and life worth living
- is not simply individual freedom, but the heroic, empowering
communities that free individuals form.
Free enterprise and civil society operate in the natural human space
- between the isolated individual and the impersonal state - where
we live, and love, and flourish… where everyone can earn a good
living and build a good life… where the strong and the vulnerable
alike can pursue their happiness, and find it… together.
In America, government did not invade or replace that space.
Government protected and expanded it. That is how we proved
to the world that freedom doesn’t mean “you’re on your own.”
Freedom means “we’re all in this together.”
The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s
a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation “of
plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow,
too.”
Organic communities formed within the free market and civil
society’s networks of opportunity are not threats that poor families
need more protection from. They are blessings that poor families
need more access to.
And that’s what America was all about. Since the dawn of time, rich
and powerful men, and friends of the king, always had access to
opportunity. What made America different is that here, everyone
did, and government’s job was to make sure of it.
This is an important point, for progressives to learn and
conservatives to remember: the constitutionally limited but
indispensable role that government played in America’s original
war on poverty. That role was best expressed by a president who
understood poverty better than most.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln told Congress that the “leading object” of
American government was:
“to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights
from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for
all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the
race of life.”
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In a single sentence, Lincoln explains precisely what poverty is, and
what government ought to do about it.
As Lincoln knew first hand, true poverty was not for most people an
absence of money, but an absence of opportunity – a lack of access
to those social and economic networks where human opportunities
are created.
Then, as now, people were not isolated because they were poor –
they were poor mostly because they were isolated.
And so, in America’s original war on poverty, government did not
give the poor other people’s money. It gave them access to other
people.
In Lincoln’s era – even during a cataclysmic war that was itself a
struggle for human freedom and opportunity – that meant dredging
rivers, building canals and cutting roads. It meant the Homestead
Act and land-grant universities.
These public goods weren’t designed to make poverty more tolerable
– but to make it more temporary. They reduced the time it took
to get products to market, increased access to banks and land, and
increased the speed at which knowledge could be developed and
shared.
Poor farmers and trappers in Lincoln’s Mid-West were no worse at
their trades than their more affluent counterparts back east. They
just didn’t enjoy the same access to networks of human, social, and
economic capital.
In the same way, poor children today do not lack the ability to
acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to flourish in our market
economy and civil society. But they absolutely lack the same access
to the networks of human opportunity where that knowledge and
those skills are acquired.
Properly considered, then, the war on poverty is not so much about
lifting people up. It’s about bringing people in.
And so the challenge to conservatives today is to rethink the war
on poverty along these lines, to bring into our economy and society
the individuals, families, and communities that have for five decades
been unfairly locked out.
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Nineteen-sixty-four wasn’t the year Americans started fighting
poverty; it was the year we started losing that fight. To start winning
again, conservatives are going to have to lead the way - not simply
by offering criticism, but alternatives.
Our job is to identify the obstructions that impede Americans’
access to our market economy and civil society and clear them. And
if we’re looking for impediments to mobility and opportunity, we’ve
certainly come to the right place!
Today, many of those obstructions are themselves government
policies. These policies unintentionally discourage almost every
positive step underprivileged families can take toward social
mobility and economic security.
Today’s government-centric system penalizes marriage, which a
mountain of evidence now shows is the single most empowering
social and economic opportunity there is. It also penalizes low-
income workers for making more money by drastically reducing
benefits at arbitrary points along the income-scale. Because of these
poverty traps, single mothers near the poverty line, for instance, can
face effective marginal tax rates of 80 or even 90 percent.
Thus, in poor communities, government dependence often atrophies
community interdependence, fraying the bonds between moms and
dads and neighbors and friends and pastors and teachers, old and
young, native and immigrant.
Meanwhile, education policies leave low-income parents and
children trapped in failing schools. Policies ranging from welfare to
health care to criminal justice are only exacerbating the explosion
of fatherlessness plaguing lower-income communities.
And so conservatives need a new, comprehensive anti-poverty
agenda that not only corrects – but transcends – existing policies.
Anyone looking for ideas would do well to visit my home state
of Utah, where a combination of smart, efficient government, a
growing, prosperous economy, an active and faithful civil society,
and perhaps the most successful private welfare system in the
world, have made Salt Lake the most upwardly mobile region in the
entire country.
But first and foremost, we should at least pledge to do no more harm.
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There is no good reason the federal government should maintain
79 separate means-tested programs. There is no good reason
why almost none of these programs feature the kind of work-
requirements that helped transition millions of Americans into jobs
after the 1996 reform. And there is no good reason federal policy
should reward states for higher spending rather than improved
results.
And so one of our first priorities should be to simply get existing
federal programs under control. And I am working with the Heritage
Foundation and several colleagues on legislation to do just that.
Second, just as we cannot spend our way out of poverty, we
cannot really cut our way out, either. We need to fundamentally
fix the system so that every dollar we do spend actually connects
underprivileged families to new opportunities in the free market and
civil society.
One way to do this would be to block-grant Medicaid funds to
the states, eliminating the federal bureaucracy that today stands
between underprivileged families and their doctors.
We could do the same thing with the Head Start program, which
spends $8.1 billion every year through a federal bureaucracy
without yielding any lasting educational benefits.
The data doesn’t tell us that pre-K education and health insurance
for poor families are bad – just that the federal government does
a lousy job of providing them. So instead, let’s allow states to
implement real reforms that give low-income families access to
educational and health opportunities somewhere besides the federal
bureaucracy.
In Utah, for instance, our legislature has created a special task
force to study the prospects of “charity care” – affordable medical
services for poor families provided not by government but by
individuals, businesses, non-profit groups, and local communities.
That model might not work in every state, but every state should
have the freedom to solve problems their own way, according to
their own values and priorities.
We need similar reforms to open up our elementary and secondary
schools, giving underprivileged parents and children access to the
same opportunities that wealthy Americans take for granted.
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We need to expand access to higher education, to reform our
accreditation system to allow federal aid to follow students to new
and diverse options: customized courses, programs, tests, on-line
and on-campus, even professional training and apprenticeships.
Another area ripe for reform is the federal government’s criminal
justice and prison system. The simple fact is that in America today,
we put too many people in prison for too long, with too little benefit
to our society.
If inmates are violent and threats to our communities, then we
have a moral responsibility to keep them locked up. If they are not
violent and pose no threat, however, if they have reformed and are
ready to return to their families and communities, we have just
as much moral duty to get them re-integrated into our nation’s
networks of social and economic mobility.
I’m working on bipartisan legislation to reform federal sentencing
and incarceration policies, following the transformative example of
innovative states. If we are serious about access to opportunity for
all, then we have to put “rehabilitation” back into the vocabulary of
the federal prison system.
There is so much more to do – on issues ranging from housing to
adoption to labor to mental health.
And of course, the best thing we can do to help the unemployed find
jobs, and low-income workers find higher-income work is to finally
get our economy growing again. Reforms to our tax, regulatory,
energy, and transportation systems that spur private investment and
job creation can do more for upward mobility than anything else in
government’s power.
And certainly more than any of the divisive, special-interest
pandering that the Washington establishments of both parties
cynically substitute for serious debate and reform.
Though many Republicans in Congress are building a serious anti-
poverty agenda the right way – you’ll hear from my friends Paul
Ryan and Jim Jordan and others today – others are tempted by what
they see as an easier way.
Too many in our party today seem to have convinced themselves
that electoral success depends on adopting the Left’s strategy of
dividing the American people.
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Slice them up into superficial identity groups, and assume that
struggling African-Americans, struggling Latinos, struggling Asian-
Americans, struggling whites, struggling single parents, struggling
unskilled workers, struggling young people, struggling immigrants,
and struggling blue collar workers all want different things.
But don’t they all really want the same thing? To not be struggling?
Special-interest policymaking that pits Americans against each
other, is the problem, not the solution. The things that truly fight
poverty – economic growth, education, innovation, voluntary
exchange – create opportunities for everyone.
I have no idea if empowering poor families – regardless of what
they look like – to overcome poverty through the cooperative
communities of the market economy and civil society will help the
Republican Party. But I do know it will help the American people –
which is what the Republican Party is supposed to be for.
And finally, we simply must begin to address what we might call
America’s “other marriage debate.”
It is uncomfortable to talk about, and almost impossible to legislate.
But the fact is, the problem of poverty in America is directly linked
to family breakdown and the erosion of marriage among low-income
families and communities.
Implicit marriage penalties in our tax code and welfare programs
surely need legislative remedies. But what we’re really talking about
is a question of culture, not policy incentives.
For years, politicians on both sides of the aisle have employed terms
like “family values” and “marriage” primarily as partisan wedges,
cudgels to attack ideological opponents.
This fact did not create America’s marriage crisis – but it hasn’t
helped, either.
And now, seemingly every week, scholars are producing more
evidence about the social and economic consequences of this
essentially moral question. We now have scientific consensus
supporting what were once thought to be merely traditions and
intuitions. According to one study, the taxpayer costs of family
fragmentation are more than $100 billion per year – a staggering
sum that nonetheless pales in comparison to the social and human
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costs, borne disproportionately by innocent children.
Yet, this data has arrived at a moment when the controversies about
same-sex marriage tend to overwhelm any political discussion of the
institution.
It could be said that the political sensitivity of marriage today might
be a good reason not to bring it up at all. But I think the data makes
this the perfect time to begin this debate precisely because it will
require such sensitivity on all sides.
In an earlier era, our assumptions and vocabulary might have
expressed judgment instead of compassion, and closed doors instead
of opening them.
Though the foundational importance of family has not changed
– times and attitudes have. Today, no serious secularist thinks
the institution of marriage is intrinsically oppressive. And no
serious traditionalist thinks of the children of single mothers as
“illegitimate.”
Even if we remove morality and religion from the question entirely,
a stable, intact family remains the greatest incubator of economic
opportunity and multiplier of human and social capital in this world.
To say that children tend to do best when raised by their married
mom and dad is not a political opinion – it is a demonstrable fact.
Saying so does not demean or degrade other family structures. And
fear of facts does not make us sensitive – it leaves us ignorant.
Public policy need not incentivize people to get married – for most
people, life already does. What public policy – and even more
importantly, the people who make and influence public policy –
must do is to finally accept and embrace and celebrate that fact.
And then see what we can do – together – to help. Sincerely doing
so could do more to win the war on poverty than anything else
discussed at this conference today.
I want to close with a story from the history of my church and my
state.
In October 1856, two groups of handcart pioneers on their way to
Utah were stuck on the plains of Wyoming: short of provisions, with
winter coming, the ground so hard they could not dig graves for
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those who expired in the cold.
In what is now Salt Lake City, Brigham Young stood to open a
general conference of the church, where the citizens anxiously
waited to hear the inspiring speeches and powerful sermons
common to such gatherings.

Instead, he began by reading the report sent to Salt Lake by the
leaders of the handcart groups. It told of:

“between five and six hundred men, women, and children, worn
by drawing handcarts through the snow and mud; fainting by the
wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs
stiffened by cold; their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow
and frost.”

Brigham Young then called the people to action, with this simple
message: “Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains
with handcarts … and they must be brought here, we must send
assistance to them.”

He said he would not wait until tomorrow or the next day. He
called for forty young men, sixty-five teams of mules or horses, and
wagons loaded with twenty-four thousand pounds of flour to leave
immediately to rescue those pioneers in the wilderness.
“I will tell you all,” Young said, “that your faith… and
profession of religion, will never save one soul of you…
unless you carry out just such principles as I am now
teaching.... Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”

The rescue party quickly assembled and headed East.
Days later, they reached the pioneers – with food and blankets and
hope. The survivors were then carried, some literally on the backs
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of their rescuers, to Salt Lake – home at last, where they belonged.
Today, millions more of our neighbors are still out on the plains.
They are not some government’s brothers and sisters – they are
ours.

And the time has come to do something about it. As conservatives,
as Americans, and as human beings, we have it in our power –
individually, together, and where necessary through government…
to bring them into our free enterprise economy to earn a good
living; to bring them into our voluntary civil society to build a good
life; and to welcome them and their children home to an America
that leaves no one behind.

Thank you, and God bless.
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OPPORTUNITY, CRONYISM, AND
CONSERVATIVE REFORM
Compounding the shortage of opportunities among the poor and
middle class is the third part of America’s Opportunity Deficit: our
crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and political privilege,
in which government twists public policy to unfairly benefit favored
special interests at the expense of everyone else. Whereas the
free enterprise system is based on the fundamental equality of
opportunity for all to succeed and to fail on a level playing field,
cronyism cements the status of the politically well-connected,
making it easier for favored special-interests to succeed, and harder
for their competitors to get a fair shot. As a result, honest small
business owners, would-be employees, and investors are unfairly
kept on the sidelines of a rigged game. Given the consequences
and scope of cronyist policies—from subsidies and loan guarantees
to tax loopholes and protective regulations—the only option for
conservatives today is a clear and simple zero-tolerance policy
toward special-interest privilege of any kind. An anti-cronyist
agenda would begin with comprehensive tax reform to get rid of
unfair carve-outs and level the playing field for small and large
businesses, as well as regulatory reform to reorient the system
around transparency and accountability. It would eliminate special
policy privileges wherever they exist, whether it’s the health-insurer
bailouts in Obamacare, special tax treatment for politically favored
energy producers, the cronyist Export-Import Bank, or the federally
created accreditation cartels that restrict access to higher education
opportunities. Taken together, these reforms would restore fair
competition at the top of our economy, expand opportunity for the
poor and middle class, and drive down working families’ inflated
housing, education, health care, and childcare costs. Anti-cronyist
reform is an issue that can unify the conservative movement. It is at
once pro-growth, principled, and popular—unclaimed political high
ground.
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Opportunity, Cronyism, and
Conservative Reform
Of, By and For the people
Remarks to the Heritage Foundation
April 30, 2014
Thank you very much.
It is always a privilege to be back at the Heritage Foundation, the
heart of America’s conservative movement. And it is to that broad,
diverse movement that I have come to speak today about an issue
with the potential to unify and revive our coalition.
As I see it, there are two great domestic challenges facing our
country today.
Problem number one is America’s large and growing Opportunity
Deficit. Up and down our society - which used to be defined by
unmatched economic growth and social flourishing - a new and
unnatural sclerosis is taking hold. For millions of working families of
or aspiring to our middle class, the American Dream is slipping out
of reach.
Problem number two is that, for the moment, the United States still
lacks a political party ready to solve problem number one. I am here
today because I believe conservatives are in a unique position to
begin to solve both.
America’s Opportunity Deficit presents itself in three principal ways:
1. First, in the growing crisis of immobility among the poor,
where families and communities are trapped in poverty,
sometimes for generations, and are increasingly disconnected
from the networks of opportunity that more affluent
Americans take for granted.
2. Second, in the crisis of insecurity within our middle class,
where the hallmarks of the American Dream – from family
stability and work-life balance to affordable education and
health care - have grown too elusive for too many.
3. Third is America’s crisis of crony capitalism, corporate
welfare, and political privilege: in which government twists
public policy to unfairly benefit favored special interests at
the expense of everyone else.
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On these first two fronts there is some good news to report.
A new generation of conservative leaders is emerging to meet these
growing challenges with principled, positive reforms, including
repairs to our welfare, prison, job-training, tax, energy, and
education systems.
Running through each is a recognition that for many Americans
today, especially for the poor and middle class, the greatest
obstacles to the pursuit of happiness are actually misguided
government policies. These conservative reformers understand that
to restore equal opportunity to all Americans, it’s not enough to just
cut big government. We also have to fix broken government – to
restore and expand access to America’s exceptional free-enterprise
economy and voluntary civil society.
These reforms aim, in the words of Abraham Lincoln:
“to lift artificial weights from all shoulders… clear the paths of
laudable pursuit for all, … [and] afford all an unfettered start and a
fair chance in the race of life.”
The emergence of this new Conservative Reform Agenda – while it
is still a work in progress - is an exciting development for our cause.
It harkens back to an earlier era when Ronald Reagan’s generation
of conservatives turned a moribund G.O.P. into America’s party of
ideas, and built a national majority that changed history.
But as crucial as this work is, it remains incomplete. As I mentioned
earlier, there is a third part of America’s Opportunity Deficit that
compounds the other two. For the same kind of dysfunctional big
government that unfairly excludes the poor and middle class from
earning their success on a level playing field… sometimes unfairly
exempts the wealthy and well-connected from having to earn their
success.
This is America’s crisis of crony capitalism, corporate welfare, and
political privilege: in which government twists public policy to
unfairly benefit favored special interests at the expense of everyone
else.
Cronyism simultaneously corrupts our economy and our
government, turning both against the American people. It forces
American families who “work hard and play by the rules” to
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prop up, bail out, and subsidize elite special interests that don’t.
It therefore represents a uniquely malignant threat to American
exceptionalism.
And so, the third part of a new, Conservative Reform Agenda must
restore equal opportunity to the top of our society, too… to root out
cronyist privilege from the law, and from our party… to re-empower
the American people and restore fairness, dynamism, and growth to
our economy.
Free enterprise works – morally and materially - because it aligns
the interests of the individual and society. It’s a system governed by
an “invisible hand” that rewards the creation of value, and by an
“invisible foot” that punishes complacency, especially at the top.
In the marketplace, personal success depends on interpersonal
service. So even the most fortunate and successful have to earn
their bread working for everyone else.
Steve Jobs didn’t succeed by rigging the computer industry – he
figured out how to make technology accessible and helpful to
ordinary people. Oprah Winfrey didn’t try to bury other talk-show
hosts in red tape – she spent decades perfecting her own show,
informing and inspiring millions of viewers. Michael Jordan never
mandated us to watch him play basketball – he just played so well
that we wanted to.
On the other hand, the American people didn’t want to buy Edsels,
New Coke, or Zunes - so those much-ballyhooed products failed.
In America, even giant corporations like Ford, Coca-Cola, and
Microsoft were powerless over an un-impressed public.
In a properly functioning free-enterprise economy – in which
success can be earned, and has to be – successful CEOs stay up
nights either obsessing about innovating to better serve their
customers, or panicking about competitors who are.
Thus free enterprise simultaneously yields economic growth and
cultivates social solidarity. The system is not perfect, but it is fair
- because its power resides in the people. And so rewards flow to
those who add real value to the lives of their neighbors and their
nation.
Cronyism turns all of this upside-down.
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It empowers and enriches the few by disenfranchising the many.
Like a black hole, cronyism bends the economy toward the state,
inexorably shifting wealth and opportunity from the public to
policymakers.
The more power government amasses, the more privileges are
bestowed on the government’s friends, the more businesses invest in
influence instead of innovation, the more advantages accrue to the
biggest special interests with the most to spend on politics and the
most to lose from fair competition.
Once profits depend on serving congressmen instead of customers,
the interests of the elite diverge from those of the nation. Innovation
slows, and true inequality – inequality of opportunity - emerges. The
American people are forced to work for big businesses instead of the
other way around. The middle class falls and the middle-men rise.
Far from the rivals of popular mythology, the elite leaders of Big
Government, Big Business, and Big Special Interests are more often
than not partners, in collusion to help each other climb to the
highest rungs of success, and then pull up the ladder behind them.
To be clear, the problem I’m describing is not that there is too much
money in politics. It’s that there’s too much politics in the economy:
three-and-a-half trillion dollars in direct federal spending, and
almost $2 trillion more redirected through regulations.
Exposing even a significant fraction of that amount to political
influence would distort enough enterprise to pull the economy off its
moorings. And that’s precisely what has happened.
What we’re left with today is a warped economy increasingly built
on connections instead of competitiveness. Record corporate profits
and jaw-dropping gains among elites… but slow growth, stagnant
wages and limited opportunities for everyone else. Except, of course,
in the Washington, D.C. area, home to six of the ten wealthiest
counties in the United States.
There is a reason opinion surveys show that America’s largest
political and economic institutions have lost the public’s trust.
Those institutions have ceased to be trustworthy. Americans across
the ideological spectrum - from the Occupy Left to the Tea Party
Right - are figuring out that America’s Opportunity Deficit is not a
mystery. It’s a government program.
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Or rather, it’s thousands of government programs. Special-interest
privilege has become so prevalent, it’s a wonder anyone can make
an honest buck anymore.
Cronyist policies come in many shapes and sizes, but the upshot
is always the same: making it easier for favored special interests to
succeed, and harder for their competitors to get a fair shot.
There are direct subsidies, like those that are supposedly necessary
to protect family farmers.
Except every year, 75 percent of the $24 billion we spend on
agriculture handouts goes to the top 10 percent of recipients. The
bulk of these subsidies aren’t going to the Little House on the
Prairie; they’re going to The Wolf of Wall Street.
(Which I have not seen, by the way. I heard there’s dancing.)
Cronyism also entails indirect subsidies, like the loan guarantees
issued by the Export-Import Bank. Here again, more than three-
quarters of ExIm’s billions of dollars in loan guarantees go to just
three corporations that are perfectly capable of securing private
financing anywhere in the world.
We all know about the booming proliferation of tax carve-outs and
loopholes. Today, the internal revenue code is about four million
words long. Depending on your brand of right-of-center politics,
that works out to about five copies of the King James Bible… or six
copies of Atlas Shrugged.
But the tax code is just one of many cases in which the sheer size
and complexity of the law operates as a cronyist subsidy all by itself.

Complicated regulations – however imposed - always increase the
costs of doing business. Those higher costs in turn advantage the
largest firms because they can always afford to hire more lawyers
and lobbyists, while smaller, younger competitors can’t.
For this reason, very often the most onerous regulations governing
an industry are endorsed by the largest players in that sector.
The largest light-bulb manufacturers supported the 2007 ban on
incandescent bulbs. The largest toy manufacturers supported
onerous new testing standards in 2008. The largest tobacco
company supported 2009 legislation to give the FDA regulatory
oversight over its product. And lest we forget, the largest
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pharmaceutical companies supported Obamacare. In every case,
the resulting regulations helped cement the incumbents’ dominant
market positions – as intended.
This process – what economists call “regulatory capture” - is also
the stock-in-trade of state and local cronyism. You may have heard
about local restaurants lobbying for regulations to drive off food
trucks, or taxi companies trying to bar Uber and ride-sharing start-
ups from city streets. But the problem is much deeper.
Today, one in three Americans works in a profession that requires
special government permission to earn a living. I’m not talking
about district attorneys and anesthesiologists, but hair-braiders,
eye-brow threaders, massage therapists, and fortune tellers. The
true purpose of occupational licensing – especially in lower-skilled
trades that have always been avenues of opportunity for lower-
income Americans – is to exclude as many newcomers as possible
while keeping customer prices artificially high.
But a recent study by the Kaufmann Foundation found that fully
100 percent of net American job creation between 1977 and 2005
came from start-up firms. Thus regulations that favor established
incumbents over younger competitors specifically hamstring the
very businesses we need to create jobs.
Sometimes cronyist schemes go so badly, so quickly, that the
corruption actually causes a scandal, as was the case with politically
connected solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which went bankrupt
and lost every dime of a $535 million federal loan guarantee. But
more often, special-interest privilege burrows so deep into the
policymaking process that the parasite starts to overwhelm its host.
Consider federal financial regulation.
Prior to 2008, the inflation of the housing bubble was a bipartisan
initiative. Under presidents and Congresses of both parties, Fannie
Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Authority collaborated
with Wall Street to conceal the risks associated with subprime
mortgages.
Then, when the inevitable collapse came, the $700 billion TARP
program bailed out the big banks, when the market was ready to
discipline them and reward their smaller, more prudent competitors.
And now, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that was supposed
to end “too big to fail” has instead codified Wall Street’s implicit
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taxpayer guarantee – which according to one study may account for
those firms’ entire profit margins.
Under this so-called reform, the biggest banks have grown bigger
than ever, while community banks are disappearing, regional banks
are being unfairly squeezed, and lower-income Americans are being
locked out of the banking system altogether.
Or look at the federal sugar program, where an array of taxes,
mandates, and subsidies conspire to jack up the prices Americans
pay on sugar – by as much as $3 billion every year. The program
hurts economic growth, and redistributes wealth from the American
people to a handful of corporations who effectively control
regulation over their industry.
Though these partnerships between big government and big
business are especially offensive, big non¬-profits play the same
game.
The myriad federal laws that advantage big labor unions can be just
as pernicious as those that privilege corporations. The auto bailouts
and the Davis-Bacon Act are merely two prominent examples of this
pathology. Another is the Mad-Men era exclusion of private-sector
employees from popular comp-time benefits.
Even our education system is distorted by special-interest privilege,
breeding inequality within the very institution that’s supposed to
be our society’s “great equalizer.” Across the country, lower- and
middle-income families are priced out of the best elementary and
secondary schools, and denied affordable alternatives. Meanwhile,
our higher-education policies entitle existing universities to inflate
prices while denying access to non-traditional students and more
affordable schools.
And of course, there is the epic cronyist disaster movie, Obamacare,
which:
• privileges certain corporations by penalizing Americans who
don’t buy health insurance from them;
• subsidizes the purchase of those products;
• protects those corporations from true price competition and
market innovation;
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• exempts special interests like labor unions, government
employees, and large corporations from various mandates
under the law; and,
• may even guarantee those corporations’ survival - even if
they lose money - through an open-ended taxpayer bailout.
The lesson for conservatives in all this is that big government is
worse than inefficient – it’s unfair.
Now the Left, they see Big Government’s consolidation and
redistribution of economic opportunity as a feature, not a bug.
Liberals have no problem privileging special interests, so long as
they’re liberal special interests. And if and when it all blows up in
their faces, they can always advocate… even bigger government.
This kind of corporatism, by which large, established players in
government, industry, labor, and special interests work together
to “manage” the economy, has always been part of progressive
ideology. Herbert Croly, one of the intellectual founders of
progressivism, put it bluntly over a century ago, when he wrote: “In
economic warfare, the fighting can never be fair for long, and it is
the business of the state to see that its own friends are victorious.”
That’s how liberals today still think.
But for conservatives, this thinking is a trap. Because properly
considered, there is no such thing as a conservative special interest.
It’s progressives who slice the country into politically assigned
subgroups, manipulating cooperative citizens into selfish special
interests. It’s big government that divides us – picking “friends” and
“enemies.” Freedom unites us.
And freedom depends on equal opportunity for all. To conservatives,
there should be no such thing as “our” people. There is just the
American people, all in this together, in a free-enterprise economy
and voluntary civil society, working hard and playing by the rules,
helping each other and especially those who can’t help themselves.
That ideal is part of what has always made America exceptional.
After all, cronyism has been the norm throughout human history.
Friends of the king have always prospered. What makes free
enterprise special is that it allows everybody else to prosper, too.
And so, just as a new Conservative Reform Agenda should seek
to once again allow the poor and middle class to compete on a
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level playing field, it must once again force the wealthy and well-
connected to do so as well. The level playing field works only when
it works for everyone.
And I mean everyone, including the rich. Make no mistake:
conservative, anti-cronyist reform should never be confused with
– or descend into - the cheap, ugly populism of class warfare. We
want successful Americans to succeed. All we ask is that they earn
their success on a level playing field, subject to the judgment of the
market – as truly successful Americans always have.
Just as the real victim of the baseball steroids scandal was the
marginal player who never got a fair chance because he didn’t
cheat, the true victims of crony capitalism… are the true capitalists:
honest entrepreneurs, employees, consumers, and investors who are
today unfairly forced to play uphill in a rigged game.
So it seems to me, given the scope and consequences of America’s
Opportunity Deficit – and of the benefits of reform - the only option
for conservatives today is a clear and simple zero-tolerance policy
toward cronyist privilege of any kind.
That means first and foremost tax reform, to simplify the code
and rid it of special treatment for special interests. One of the
best aspects of the tax reform proposed by House Ways and Means
Committee Chairman Dave Camp was its simplification, cutting
unfair and unnecessary special-interest carve-outs.
Last year, I introduced legislation to eliminate most credits and
deductions from the individual tax code, while lowering the
mortgage-interest deduction to $300,000 worth of principal. My plan
also increased the child tax credit to help equalize treatment for
working parents, who today face an unintended policy inequity of
their own.
I have also begun working with Senator Marco Rubio on a broader
pro-family, pro-growth tax reform proposal to eliminate special
interest privilege from the corporate code and level the playing field
for small and large businesses.
We also need a broad regulatory-reform agenda, to make sure
big government and big special interests are not rigging the rules
for each other and against the public. Here, Senator Rand Paul’s
“REINS Act” is an excellent start. The REINS Act would introduce
transparency and accountability to the system by requiring
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congressional approval of any major new executive-branch
regulations.
While REINS provides an excellent solution to new regulations, we
need complementary reforms to deal with cronyist manipulation
already in place.
Toward that end, Senator Rubio has proposed a Regulatory
Budgeting mechanism to bring more accountability into the system.
And I’m working on my own plan to create a new, annual Regulatory
Authorization process. This process would require Congress to
prioritize and approve the cost and content of all regulations
Washington imposes on the economy every year.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Budget Committee
Chairman Paul Ryan has been a longtime champion of anti-cronyist
reform, and made the elimination of special-interest privilege a
point of emphasis in this year’s Budget Resolution.
But beyond broad tax, regulatory, and budget reform, conservatives
need to start identifying and eliminating specific policy privileges as
well.
Some already have.
For instance, Congressman Mike Pompeo has introduced a bill to
end special tax treatment in the energy sector: to level the playing
field for green energy and fossil fuels.
Senator Rubio has proposed legislation to protect taxpayers from
the implicit health-insurer bailouts in Obamacare. A Senate vote on
his proposal could help clarify the law and the politics, and further
the cause of full repeal.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling is leading the
fight in the House against the reauthorization of the cronyist Export-
Import Bank this year – to level the playing field for all American
exporters, not just the well-connected few. The fight against
reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank is probably the most important and
winnable anti-cronyist effort conservatives can take up this year.
We also need to break up federally created cartels that protect
insiders and disadvantage taxpayers and consumers.
Last fall, I proposed legislation to introduce competition and
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innovation in higher education accreditation – to lower prices and
increase access to college.
And Congressman Tom Graves has proposed a bill to let state and
local governments build their own roads and infrastructure without
having Beltway bureaucrats, labor bosses, and federal eco-cronies
inflate the costs and skim off the top.
We need to modernize federal labor law, to give independent and
union workers equal access to comp-time and the right-to-work.
And we’re also going to have to do something about “Too Big To
Fail,” which still appears to be providing an implicit subsidy from
taxpayers to Wall Street’s biggest banks.
How we go about fixing the perverse incentives in our financial
system is still an open question. But it’s one conservatives must
answer before the next crisis comes.
Perhaps the solution is a new bankruptcy process - like the one
proposed by Senators John Cornyn and Pat Toomey – that would
transfer authority over failed banks from political regulators to more
impartial courts. If we can’t be sure there will never be another
bailout request, perhaps changes to capital-reserve requirements –
an approach supported by Senators David Vitter and Sherrod Brown
– could force big banks to operate more responsibly, preventing the
next crisis from ever emerging.
But whatever we decide, the purpose of reform should not be to
protect the rich and powerful in ways that encourage them to
take foolish risks with other people’s money… but to protect the
taxpayer in ways that encourage both entrepreneurial dynamism
and corporate responsibility.
Taken together, these reforms would begin to eliminate cronyist
privilege, create opportunity, and drive down the inflated costs
of the staples of middle class aspiration and security, including
housing, education, health care, and child-rearing.
Anti-cronyist reform is more than good policy. It’s an issue that can
unify conservatives, at a time when we need more of them. That’s
why, for the moment, the policy specifics in many ways matter less
than the larger political commitment of the conservative movement
to make this cause our own.
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Just like the crises of lower-income immobility and middle class
insecurity, the crisis of special-interest privilege is not Barack
Obama’s fault. It predates his presidency. And though his policies
have made it worse, past Republican presidents and Congresses
share some of the blame.
The policies that contribute to America’s Opportunity Deficit have
deep roots and powerful friends. Reforming them won’t be easy or
pleasant. It will require closing the G.O.P.’s lucrative branch of the
Beltway Favor Bank, and learning a hundred ways to say “no” to
former staffers and colleagues with large accounts in that bank.
This may sound like a heavy lift, a fundamental transformation of
how our party and this city function. But that’s what they used to
say about earmarks. And much more to the point, this is stuff we are
already supposed to believe.
Every Republican candidate in the country campaigns on free
enterprise, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law. Crony
capitalism is even singled out for condemnation in the party
platform. And yet, Republican votes have helped pass many of the
unfair, cynical policies mentioned above. Too many in Washington
have convinced themselves that special-interest privilege is wrong
only when the other side does it. But not surprisingly, they have not
convinced the public.
Americans intuitively understand that crony capitalism is not a
form of private enterprise; it’s a form of public corruption.
To the hundreds of millions of Americans who believe in a level
economic playing field – most especially to the working families
of the poor and middle class whose aspirations and opportunities
utterly depend on it – self-dealing among political and economic
elites is not compromise. It’s a monstrous betrayal. And from the
party that advocates the moral and material superiority of free
enterprise, it’s rank hypocrisy. Whether we realize it or not, we are
the ones whose ideals cronyism corrupts, and whose arguments
cronyism discredits.
The Left openly supports special-interest favoritism, while the Right
claims to reject it. So the fact that both parties engage in it is a
much more powerful indictment of Republicans than Democrats.
As long as our economic agenda can plausibly be mocked as “low
tax rates and protected profits for the One Percent,” the American
people have good reason not to trust us.
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To win back their trust – and we must - it’s not going to be enough
to merely atone for past transgressions. We will have to “go and sin
no more.”
To the conservatives who hope to lead congressional majorities in
2015, or seek the presidency in 2016, this is more than a matter of
talking points and tactics. It’s about first principles: the fundamental
morality of our cause, and the purpose of our coalition.
It seems to me that a principled, positive agenda to remove
government-created barriers to upward mobility and middle-class
opportunity - to level our economic playing field and put economic
elites back to work creating jobs and growth for everyone else –
represents everything conservatism should stand for.
It further seems to me that in the twenty-five years since Ronald
Reagan left office, we have tried it the establishment’s way. We have
tried being a party of corporate connections and special-interest
deal-making. And we’ve lost five of the six presidential popular votes
since.
And so it is reasonable for conservatives to put the onus on the
establishment to explain why we don’t need fundamental course
correction, starting with a commitment to basic fairness, equal
opportunity, and a zero-tolerance policy toward special-interest
privilege – consistent with our own stated principles.
To the professional consultants and pundits who habitually cast a
skeptical eye on anti-establishment ideas: this is not some quixotic
purity test or fund-raising gimmick. Anti-cronyist reform is at once
pro-growth, principled, and popular – unclaimed political high
ground.
Substantively, it’s necessary to get the economy growing
again, creating jobs and opportunities for working families and
communities too short on both. Morally, a wary American public has
ever right to expect that conservative welfare reform ought to start
with corporate welfare. And as always, good policy makes for good
politics. Re-aligning our agenda with our values will realign it with
middle-American aspirations. It would expose the Left’s addiction
to government-driven inequality, and force progressives to finally
choose between their populist rhetoric and their corporatist agenda.
For every well-heeled ally a new, anti-cronyist G.O.P. might lose
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on K Street, it stands to make a thousand new friends on Main
Streets, all over the country. It would signal to the forgotten families
of America’s middle class that someone in Washington is finally
standing up for them again.
That Republican Party could not only unify and inspire the Right –
from libertarian populists to compassionate conservatives - but also
appeal to hardworking families in the purple and blue communities
that President Obama’s cronyist economy is leaving behind.
For three years now, since my rambunctious class of legislators
arrived in Washington, establishment leaders have challenged anti-
establishment conservatives to accept political reality… engage the
politics of addition… and produce a viable plan to make principled
conservatism appealing and inclusive — to grow our movement into
a majority.
Well, here it is: a commitment to economic fairness and competition
at the top of our economy to help restore jobs, growth, mobility, and
opportunity to the poor and middle class.
Though what I propose is a change, it’s not unfamiliar.
People sometimes forget that the British policies that lit the fuse
of the American Revolution did not merely oppress the colonists.
Indeed, the Tea Act of 1773 actually lowered taxes. The problem
was, it only lowered taxes for one corporation, the politically
connected East India Company, giving it an unfair, artificial
advantage over smaller, local American competitors.
That is why the tea went into the Harbor.
In many ways, it was a fight for equal opportunity against special-
interest privilege that made our nation.
A renewed conservative commitment to that same fight today can
help re-make our nation… revive our movement, and rebuild a fair
and prosperous American economy of, by, and for the people.
FOR MORE
INFORMATION VISIT:

LEE.SENATE.GOV
MIKE LEE
UNITED STATES SENATOR, UTAH
LEE.SENATE.GOV
AN AGENDA FOR
OUR TIME