Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has become a conservative leader in his first term in the U.S. Senate. On Feb. 16, Lee came to the Washington Examiner offices and sat down for an hour-long interview on many topics.
Below are lightly edited highlights of Lee's comments:
What Trump's election signified
I certainly think it was a rejection of the political establishment in Washington. And it wasn't necessarily what any one person or any one group of people prominent in Washington prior to the Trump era saw coming. But I certainly don't see it as a rejection of the conservative movement itself. It is distinct in some ways from it, but there are parts of it that are entirely consistent with the conservative message.
How Trump's populism fits with conservatism
The term "populism" is ... sort of politically agnostic; it's politically neutral. Populism just refers to a dynamic in which there is a popular sentiment that grows and then there's swelling, and the common man and woman, the hardworking men and women of a country unite behind and resonate with a certain set of ideas. But it's agnostic as to what those ideas are. ...
If you recognize the fact that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the federal government throughout the country, not just with the federal government but with the opportunities that hardworking Americans have at their disposal, with the fact that a lot of people have felt squeezed out of the benefits that have traditionally flowed to the country, that have traditionally helped create America's robust middle class. If you understand that that has a lot to do with Trump's success, and then you look at conservative principles and identify ways in which the federal government, federal policies have contributed to the frustration that a lot of these people feel, you can identify conservative solutions that can help them.
'The Forgotten Man,' conservatives, and Trump
If you've read the Amity Shlaes book The Forgotten Man, the whole focus of the book is on the New Deal and FDR, and the fact that the New Deal purported to focus on the forgotten man, but ironically, neglected the forgotten man. ... The forgotten man is very often the person who is neither the Wall Street fat cat nor the immediate beneficiary of a government program designed to help the indigent.
And the forgotten man is the man or the woman who works hard every day to put bread on the table to feed his or her family and to be a good citizen. And very often that person is the last one to have the government responding to his or her needs. ...
I think there are forgotten men and women in every part of the country, in urban areas and in rural. And President Trump did quite well in rural areas. ...
I think a lot of his gains came from people who are neither rich nor poor. I think that's probably where the biggest surge came along that helped him.
I still think the best way to serve the common man and the common woman is always through conservative policies, because those are the ones that respect the dignity of the individual, the — the value of the human soul being intrinsic and not related to any special status conferred by government, or any special benefit sponsored by government. ...
It's that environment, it's conservative policies that have created the biggest, most successful middle class the world has ever known, and the most robust economy the world has ever known.
On populism and mediating institutions
I think [the Founders] understood what populism was, what it is. One of the reasons why, in our republic we have mediating institutions and we have mediating entities within government itself. And that's one of the reasons why we have three separate branches of government, and one of the reasons why ours is not a pure democratic system. ...
What [the Founders] would find troubling, I think, is the extent to which we have weakened our mediating institutions and the extent to which we have weakened both our vertical and our horizontal separation of powers.
On separation of powers
Over the course of many administrations stretching back about 80 years, we have drifted far from federalism and separation of powers. Eighty years is about where I trace it to the point where we kind of unhinged ourselves from those two structural projections in the Constitution. And we've contributed dramatically to that drift under the leadership of, um, congresses and White Houses of every conceivable partisan combination.
Which means that we are still in a position where federalism and separation of powers have been severely weakened. I'm optimistic that this administration will work to try to restore them.
I hope I was reading it correctly, but I read into the president's inaugural speech — particularly his first three, four, five minutes — a strong desire to restore federalism and separation of powers. ... Where he said this is more than just a change from one administration to another, a — a shift from one political party to another, this amounts to a significant shift of power from Washington, D.C., back to the American people.
And so I like the direction the president staked out on that, and I hope to see that direction followed. Now, we are just over three weeks into that administration. You can't turn that thing around overnight. I didn't expect that they would have turned it around overnight. But I hope and expect that we're heading in the right direction. ...
I think we have a long way to go in restoring separation of powers. But it gives me comfort that the president has expressed support for, among other things, the REINS Act, which would do more to restore separation of powers than any other single piece of legislation that I can think of because it would require that major rules be affirmatively enacted and signed into law by the president — affirmatively enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president before they could take effect.
Lee's tax plan
The way we tax income ... the way we even tax corporate income has hidden detrimental effects on hardworking Americans. And hidden detrimental effects that, being hidden as they are, are not always obvious to those who are being harmed. What they know is that they're being harmed. What they know is that they're not prospering like they'd like to be. So it's one of the reasons why I look at things like getting rid of the corporate tax because I view it as a hidden back door, quite regressive tax.
There are economists who estimate that 25 percent of corporate income tax ends up coming out of wages. There are others who put it at more like 50 percent. There's one recent study putting it even higher than that. But so — and yet, your typical hardworking American doesn't necessarily look at the corporate income tax and say, "hey, that's what's taking my wages away." But there are things we've got to look at that can address that.
When you take into account the corporate tax, and then you add to that capital gains tax, you add to that payroll tax — you're talking about a whole lot of tax that ends up being paid. And if we got rid of the corporate tax, that would result I think in some investment income still being taxed less overall than it would have been otherwise.
So I don't know that I would make it a moral argument so much as I would make it a tax simplification argument. And it's an idea that has as its goal simplifying the tax code in a way that will promote economic growth, promote upward economic mobility, promote job growth and wage growth.
On Obamacare repeal and replace
I think if we're going to succeed in bringing the American people the kind of healthcare reform they want and need and deserve, which is the kind of healthcare reform that will return power to doctors and patients rather than having those decisions made by government bureaucrats in Washington, we're going to have to do a few things. And I think it has to start with us accelerating into the repeal effort.
And I think that means that we need to take out the reconciliation bill that we passed in December 2015, and putting it back on the floor and getting it passed, perhaps as is, in order to keep the process moving. I think that is the best strategy to use, in part because that is the only clear strategy to me that at this point seems likely to succeed, likely to lead to the next steps. I think what comes next needs to involve an iterative process. ...
I don't think the fact that insurers are going to endure some uncertainty is a reason to not repeal. ...
I don't think it's realistic to say that Republicans just have to achieve consensus that doesn't now exist and won't exist any time soon before bringing up a repeal bill. I don't think that's smart. ...
If you don't repeal, I think that gives inadequate incentive for people to come to the table. ...
If you start loading everything into the repeal bill, before there is a repeal, I don't know if you get the consensus. I think the momentum will start to be lost. and I think that's part of the — I think some of the people who were trying to suggest that Republicans have to have a single, finely wrought consensus replacement package in place before repeal passes — I think some people were saying that — are saying that precisely for the reason that that will slow the momentum to the point that we won't be able to pass it.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.