Utah Senator Mike Lee Not Willing To Cave On Debt Ceiling Issue
HH: As promised, joined now by United States Senator Mike Lee. Senator Lee’s been a guest in the past. He’s also a great advocate for Constitutionalism, and he’s also the author of a brand new book that I think every single American conservative has to get out there. It’s from Regnery-Gateway. Senator Lee, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.
ML: Thank you very much. It’s good to be with you, Hugh.
HH: Now are you surprised by how this book is taking off, and how many people want to read about a balanced budget amendment, and about The Freedom Agenda?
ML: Well, I’m very encouraged by it. I’m encouraged by the fact that Americans, as I suspected when I began writing the book, are ready to reclaim their freedom. They’ve been frustrated for a long time, and they wanted to know how we got into this mess and how we get out of it, how we reclaim our freedom, and restore responsibility at the federal level. And this book shows us how to do that.
HH: Now the balanced budget amendment, I mean, your timing is pretty great, because it’s coming out right now. But the Wall Street Journal opened fire at it today. Were you surprised by that editorial?
ML: You know, I was disappointed by it. I can’t say that I was especially surprised. The Wall Street Journal has taken this opinion in the past, and the Wall Street Journal’s been wrong before. I disagreed with the Wall Street Journal’s support of TARP a few years ago. And I certainly agree with this decision to come out against this. One day, they’ll look back and realize they were wrong.
HH: Let’s talk for a moment about practical politics before we dive into the book. Have you got the votes to get the BBA out?
ML: Well, we’ve got, I believe, the potential to get the cut, cap and balance act passed. It’s going to pass in the House tonight. It’ll come over to the Senate. Once it comes over to the Senate, we can point out at this point, this is the only plan that deals with the debt limit issue in any meaningful way that’s been reduced to legislation, that has any degree of significant support within Congress and outside of Congress. It’s not just the best plan, it’s the only plan. And if we can point that out to people, which I believe we can, we can use that as leverage to get it passed, because a lot of people have made a big point about how we can’t not raise the debt limit. Currently, this is the only plan that does addresses that, and we think there’s a case to be made here, that President Obama shouldn’t be able to allow the country to be commandeered just on his threat to not support something if it has a balance budget amendment attached to it. That’s how we’re going to get it passed.
HH: Even when you had the sense of the Senate resolution, I talked to Kelly Ayotte earlier today, you only had 57 Senators for that. Can you hold those 57 in at this moment, given the President’s veto threat, Mike Lee?
ML: It was actually 58, as I recall. And so that means we need to hold all of those, and we need to get nine more. And I believe we can, because look, the American people overwhelmingly support the balanced budget amendment, and they’re overwhelmingly concerned about the debt limit increase. And American families, American businesses, and state and local governments all operate the same way that the balanced budget amendment would require Congress to operate. So it’s very difficult to impossible for them to refute the need for this, the need for a balanced budget amendment, on the merits. The only way they can kill it is by saying oh, it can’t pass, trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the American people know better. And they know that they’re actually going to have to defeat it on merit, and so far, nobody’s been able to.
HH: I’m talking with Senator Mike Lee of Utah. His brand new book, The Freedom Agenda, is linked at Hughhewitt.com. It’s in bookstores everywhere. It’s a great read, it’s primarily about the balanced budget amendment, but it’s actually about much, much more than BBA. In Chapter 8, Senator Lee, you write, “We need a limited purpose government, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” But that’s kind of a high concept. What do you mean by a limited purpose government? What do you want people to take away from that?
ML: Well, we need to remember that the Revolutionary War wasn’t just about getting rid of a king. And it wasn’t just about taxation without representation. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were subject to tyranny, under the oppression of a large, distant, national government. I think a generation came away from that experience with the very real understanding that tyranny lurks and presents its ugly head under the banner of large, national governments. And so that’s why, when our founding fathers put the Constitutional together, they went out of their way to make sure that our national government would have only a few limited powers any national government would have to have, including national defense, immigration, weights and measures, regulating trade between the states, and when foreign nations declaring war, and just a few basic other powers. And if you look at our acquisition of debt in this country, if you look at the era in which individual liberty has been most eroded in this country, is has occurred over the last 70 years, since the New Deal era really went into full swing, when our federal government started ignoring those Constitutional boundaries about what Congress is supposed to be doing.
HH: We’ll come right back. Senator, hold on a second.
– – – – –
HH: Senator, before we go back to The Freedom Agenda, a couple of quick questions. A friend of mine, I’m sure a friend of yours, Orrin Hatch, is frequently on this program. A friend of yours, a friend of mine, Jason Chaffetz, is also on this program. Have you decided yet who you’re going to support in that showdown in Utah?
ML: No. What I’ve decided, essentially, is that I intend to stay out of that race. I’ve got two good friends who could end up running against each other. And in the event that they do, I intend to stay out of that race altogether, and let the voters of Utah decide it without my input.
HH: All right, and in terms of being part of the Republican caucus in the Senate, Mitch McConnell’s come up with a backup plan on the debt ceiling. Will you support that if the balanced budget amendment fails in the United States Senate?
ML: Absolutely not. No, never, under any circumstances would I ever support that. Look, I like Senator McConnell, I respect him as our Senate minority leader. But this was a bad idea. Everybody has a bad idea once in a while, and this one was a doozy. The idea behind that is to allow the President to raise his own debt limit to the tune of about a trillion dollars, and to require him each time he raises it to make a series of spending cut proposals to Congress, which are not binding and don’t really have any legal effect, and then apparently to give Republicans clearance, it would allow Congress to vote on a resolution of disapproval, saying that we don’t like the fact that the President just exercised the authority that Congress gave him a few months ago. But that would then be subject to a presidential veto. And so the resolution of disapproval would be basically meaningless. We have said all along as Republicans that we can’t raise the debt limit without attaching serious conditions. And we know that we are messing with our credit rating if we raise the debt limit without serious, permanent, structural spending reform mechanisms being put in place, things that can’t be circumvented. This accomplishes none of that. All it accomplishes is it would put in place a mechanism to allow Republicans to shift blame to the other party. But it’s such a thinly-veiled blame-shifting game that it won’t ever serve that cynical, political purpose. And I was elected to solve problems, not shift blame to other parties.
HH: Okay, given your adamant and firm announcement of your intention to vote against it, can you count heads? Are there seven Republicans who will join with Democrats to pass the McConnell version?
ML: I don’t know. If they do so, I think they will do so at their own peril, and at the peril of the country. I’m doing everything I can to persuade colleagues that this the wrong choice. And it is too early to tell at this point. But this is one of the reasons I think this was such an ill-conceived idea, is because it amounts almost to an anticipatory surrender. You know, when you’re entering into negotiation, whether it’s to settle a war or a piece of litigation, you don’t ever say to your other side well, if we don’t get what we want, our Plan B is unconditional surrender on our part. We’ll give you what you want, and then we’ll walk away. It causes the whole negotiation strategy from that point forward to implode.
HH: But Senator McConnell has said in many places, including somewhat on this show, that the down side of not declaring his plan is that we risk a market sell-off of, you know, four figures in a dramatic drop. Are you worried about that kind of market chaos if there is not a safety net under the debt ceiling negotiations?
ML: I’m worried, of course, about that kind of market chaos. But I am at least equally worried about the kind of market chaos that will ensue if we raise the debt limit without any significant conditions attached. Both of them would carry with them dire consequences. I’m frankly not sure which one is worse, and I often suspect that raising it without conditions might be worse for the economy, especially in the long run. And so that’s really what we’re facing. We’re sacrificing our freedom, and we’re sacrificing our fiscal stability in this country if we pursue that approach.
HH: Now Senator, I want to go back to The Freedom Agenda and the balanced budget amendment. In The Freedom Agenda, you argue for a return to a basic approach, to a Constitutional approach, and you blast the dismissive, craven method of legislating on Page 114, that goes to the delegation. And I agree with a lot of this. The one thing I pause at is do you think that in this supermajority requirements on so many fronts in the balanced budget amendment, you guys aren’t substituting for the framers your own understanding of what works best? Because supermajorities are pretty stunning things to put into a document.
ML: Sure, absolutely they are. And the founding fathers had good reason to give Congress borrowing power, which they did in Article I, Section 8, Clause 2. They understood that we would, as a nation, need to borrow from time to time in order to finance wars and other unusual endeavors. What I think they didn’t bargain for is the fact that this would be so severely abused that we would start to borrow not just to cover unusual expenses as an aberration, but that we would use it just to cover business as usual, our day to day operating expenses. Nor did they anticipate that perhaps the single most important feature of the Constitution, the concept of limited legislative powers at the federal level, would be so openly flouted as it has been in recent decades, that there would become no real limit on federal power. This is the central thesis of The Freedom Agenda, is that we’ve lost liberty, and we’ve lost economic stability as we have allowed for the unfettered expansion of the federal government, in large part through perpetual, large scale deficit spending, and that the only way for us to reclaim our freedom, and reclaim our birthright to economic prosperity, is to put a cap, some meaningful restriction, on Congress’ borrowing power, and by that means, restrict the growth of government in a real meaningful way. This book empowers people throughout the country, who for a long time have started to feel powerless because of this inexorable growth of this government to which they’re subject. This book shows them how we’ll get out of this mess.
HH: It does indeed, and The Freedom Agenda is a brisk and wonderful read. It’s got original documents in it as well. You will love this book. It is linked at www.hughhewitt.com. Senator Mike Lee, always a pleasure, thanks for joining us.
End of interview.