The Agenda

Sen. Mike Lee’s Way Forward

As a conservative Republican in Utah, Sen. Mike Lee has good reason to believe that he has a decent shot at reelection in 2016. But what separates Lee from most senators in relatively safe seats is that he is actually using his advantageous political position to do something worthwhile — specifically, Lee has been articulating a new agenda for conservatives that blends aspects of libertarian populism, reform conservatism, and other intellectual currents that have been gaining currency among right-of-center activists and intellectuals, yet which so far have had little purchase among elected Republicans. In an address to the Heritage Foundation, Lee has outlined what he hopes to accomplish and how. Rich Lowry has praised Lee’s speech, and I agree entirely with his take. Though I have disagreements with Lee, as you might expect, I particularly appreciated his observation on how conservatives ought to approach political debate:

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 identifying converts, not heretics. This, too, is part of the challenge before us.

Though Lee’s speech is not meant to offer a detailed reform agenda for the right, he does identify a number of policy initiatives that are in tune with his vision of a family-friendly conservatism that speaks to the interrelated problems of entrenched poverty, middle-class squeeze, and pervasive rent-seeking. The following are a few of the ideas that struck me as particularly noteworthy and attractive:

1. He calls for a new child tax credit that can offset parents’ income and payroll-tax liability — a measure that has the potential to greatly ease the burdens of child-rearing for middle-income families.

2. And he touts the virtues of flex-time legislation that would allow workers to compensated with time off instead of extra pay in exchange for working overtime.

3. Lee’s take on transportation is particularly inventive. He opens by identifying the human cost of traffic congestion — the time that motorists on gridlocked freeways can’t spend with the people they love — and then he calls for increased investment in infrastructure. Yet rather than call for increased federal investment in infrastrcuture, he backs the devolution of responsibility for surface transportation, on the grounds that states and cities will do a better job of planning, financing, and building infrastructure. The federal gas tax would steadily decrease and state governments would pick up the slack. Voters in states who tend to oppose high federal gas taxes will have to live with the results: either their state governments will prove more efficient than the federal government, or they will realize that their anti-tax sentiments aren’t compatible with high-quality infrastructure. Lee’s argument brings to mind environmentalist Rohit Aggarwala’s provocative case for killing the federal gas tax. One of the most interesting aspects of Lee’s discussion of transportation policy is his explicit recognition that different states and cities will go in different directions, with some choosing to build more roads and others choosing to build more and better mass-transit systems. 

4. His discussion of higher education is also quite smart. Recognizing that existing accreditation systems are often used by incumbent higher education institutions to limit competition from new entrants, Lee proposes allowing state governments to enter into agreements with the federal government to allow federal financial aid to flow to specialized instructional providers. The idea is that specialized providers can offer high-quality, low-cost alternatives to course offerings from traditional institutions, and students — particularly non-traditional students — could take advantage of these options to get a good education without taking on crippling amounts of debt. Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation has often argued that the current U.S. approach to accreditation has proven a big barrier to productivity-enhancing innovation in higher education, and Lee’s proposal seems like a good first step for addressing this problem. 

This is a really, really good place to start, and I hope other Tea Party conservatives follow Lee’s lead. What I’d most like to see next is for elected Republicans to start reading Oren Cass.


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