Utah Senator Mike Lee On Tax Reform, Filibuster Reform, Defense Spending And More
HH: As promised, United States Senator Mike Lee is in the studio. He’s now been taken to the secret location where John Thune, Justice Breyer, Dick Cheney, and he is underwhelmed as they are. You know, radio is really glamorous, isn’t it, Senator Lee?
ML: It is the absolute definition of, it’s the epitome of glamour right here in this office.
HH: There you go. (laughing) Senator Lee, welcome, it’s good to have you. You’re in California, you’re raising money. You’re not running until 2016. People think Utah is a lockdown state, but it isn’t, really, and you’ve got to get out there and you need your supporters to rally. What’s your, by the way, your political website?
ML: My political website is www.leeforsenate.com. www.leeforsenate.com. You can go there, you can donate to my campaign, or donate to my campaign. It’s a great place to visit.
HH: And donate to your campaign a third time.
HH: So 2016, but people are going to look and they say Utah is so deep red, why do we need to support Mike Lee? And the answer is, I suspect, you want to just make sure the field is clear, and then you’ll put the money to good use if it isn’t.
ML: Well, that’s absolutely right. And within a state like mine, that generally elects Republicans to statewide office, generally elects Republicans to the United States Senate, it pushes a lot of activity into the Republican Party, a lot of people who in other states might be Democrats might end up deciding to participate in the Republican Party for that reason. So we’ve got to make sure that it’s just a Republican, but the right Republican, a Republican who has a conservative vision for America.
HH: All right, let’s start with Lee-Rubio, which is the name of the tax plan which I think is going to become as famous as Kemp-Roth, or Roth-Kemp, however you want to call it. Tell us what Lee-Rubio is, and does that tip your hand in the presidential race?
ML: It does not tip my hand in the presidential race. You know, probably my three closest friends in the Senate, or at least three of my very closest friends in the Senate are Cruz, Rubio and Paul, all appear to be gearing up to run for president. And so no, that is not intended as a tip of the hand. But what it does is just simplify the tax code, and do it in a way that would promote economic growth, and promote freedom in America, that would take our current complicated tax code that occupies tens of thousands of pages together with its implementing regulations and consolidate it into a simplified two rate system, under which 80% of all Americans would pay under one simplified rate of 15%.
HH: How do you get to that? And you keep deductions, right?
ML: We keep deductions for charitable contributions and mortgage interest.
HH: And so mortgage, those are two of my big three. The state income tax deduction is the third of my big three, so tell me what happens to people who live in a state like California where they’re charging us 13% income tax and sales taxes and all that other stuff. They’re just, they have to live with the consequences of their bad government choices?
ML: And they should take that up with their state legislators and make sure that the state isn’t overtaxing them. But one way or another, it shouldn’t be Washington encouraging that kind of behavior. It shouldn’t be Washington promoting that kind of heavy tax burden from the state level. And so we think it’s appropriate for the accountability for that decision to be borne by state legislators and not federal lawmakers.
HH: It will cause migration. I mean, it already is. The reason Orlando is the fastest-growing zip code in America is because old people take their money and they move to Florida where there is no income tax.
ML: Indeed they do, and there are other states to which people are flocking left and right. People are going to Texas, they’re going to Florida, they’re going to Utah, they’re going to places with a very modest tax burden, and it’s with good reason. In fact, this is what the founding fathers had in mind, that people would vote with their feet. People would move to and from different parts of the country based on who was doing the right thing in the competitive environment that is our federalist system.
HH: I’m talking with United States Senator Mike Lee, who’s on the cutting edge of the tax reform movement in the United States. My friend, Hank Adler, teaches tax at Chapman University, longtime partner at Deloitte. He’s retired. Whenever people talk tax reform, they don’t bring up the casualty loss, and he says you know, they’ve always got to provide for casualty loss, otherwise people are screwed. You’re not saying you wouldn’t have other parts of the tax code, right? You wouldn’t do away with things like casualty loss.
ML: Yeah, I’m talking here at a high level of generality, or this is not yet reduced to legislative language. It’s not yet a bill. It’s a concept, a concept to move us from a seven rate system to a two rate system on the individual side, and on the corporate side to reduce the rate from 35% down to 25%.
HH: Now how you get from the concept, which is what Kemp-Roth, and that’s what Ronald Reagan went around the country in ’78, ’79 and ’80, you’re too young to remember that, but that’s what he campaigned on – Kemp-Roth, Kemp-Roth, Kemp-Roth. How do you get from that to what Reagan got to in the spring of 1981, which is actual tax reform, and then in ’86, to tax simplification?
ML: Well, that’s what we’re working toward. We’ve put out a white paper in the last few weeks, and we’re still putting meat on the bones. We’re coming up with more and more detail every day so that at the appropriate time, we’ll have legislative language ready to go. We’re not there, yet, but we hope that in the coming months, we’ll have something that we can introduce.
HH: Now I learned something at lunch today. When you and Senator Rubio rolled this out, at the end of it, Senator Rubio said now I’m going to give my pitch in Spanish, and then Senator Lee’s going to give his pitch in Spanish. You’re fluent.
ML: I am. I’m fluent in Spanish, and I didn’t know that he was going to say that.
HH: Prove it.
ML: Es muy importante que (something else in Spanish – transcriber says you’re on your own).
HH: I am very impressed. It’s like, I didn’t know Condi Rice spoke Russian until one day out of the blue, she blurted out Russian. So obviously, you must have done your mission for the LDS Church in a Spanish-speaking place.
ML: I did. I did my mission in the Southern Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where at least at the time, nobody spoke English, so I had to learn Spanish. It was a sink or swim sort of a thing. And to this day, I’ve maintained my Spanish language ability. I find it to be a beautiful language. It’s a very expressive language, and it’s a language in which I love to communicate with my Senate colleagues. Cruz, Rubio and I frequently speak Spanish on the Senate floor.
HH: And when you ran for election the first time, did you find yourself going into predominantly, for example, Santa Ana is in Orange County, it’s the home of more Mexican citizens than any other city in the world outside of Mexico. Spanish is spoken a lot there, and by American citizens, by the way, who also like to use Spanish as their first language, and who enjoy their media in Spanish. Do you find it useful on the campaign trail? Do you use it on the political trail?
ML: Occasionally. Look, it’s not just on the campaign trail or in government. Whenever, for any reasons, even if I’m just out with my family somewhere, if I run into someone who speaks Spanish, I like to strike up a conversation in that language, because I enjoy speaking it. It’s a beautiful language, and I like to maintain my ability to speak it.
HH: Now Senator, when you deal with immigration issues, then, you come from this from the perspective of someone who’s probably been in the poorest communities of the deepest Latino neighborhoods in America.
HH: So what do you think about the immigration issue? And how about, and the language of it?
ML: You know, we’re a nation of immigrants. We always have been. I hope we always will be. It’s one of our greatest strengths as a country is that this is the kind of place that people want to come to. They want to move here. And they do not because of who we are, but because of what we do, because this is the kind of place where you can be born into poverty and have a reasonable expectation that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can retire comfortably, and in some cases, wealthy. And so we want to maintain that economic opportunity society that has drawn so many people here over the course of many centuries. We want to maintain that. And to maintain it, we’ve got to stay consistent with the rule of law. We’ve got to make sure that our immigrants come in through the front door and not through the back door. We need to fix our legal immigration system. We do need to protect our border. We need to finally finish the entry/exit system that Congress has been calling for since 1996.
HH: What about a fence?
ML: Well, you know, a fence, I don’t know that that’s necessarily where our efforts are best spent. I frankly, if we’re going to put money into border security, I think we’re probably better served by finishing the entry/exit system, and then perhaps putting more boots on the ground on the border. In some cases, more fence can be a good thing. But we don’t necessarily need one along the entire stretch of the border.
HH: Of course not. 2,000 miles. We’ll come back after break and talk about that. I think a thousand miles of a 2,000 mile border would work for everyone, and then you’d get buy in. But we’ll talk more about this when I come back.
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HH: I was happy to donate to him today and happy to host an event with some of my buddies down in Orange County on his behalf, because Senator Lee is one of the principled crusaders for reform, even though we don’t agree on a lot of things. There are some things we disagree on. Now I want to go there and roast him a little bit. One is you voted against raising Defense spending last week, both against the Rubio-Cotton amendment and against the Paul amendment. And you put up with some tough questions at lunch today. Tell people what your position is, and then I’ll throw some hardballs at you. And I’ve got Robert O’Brien with me in the studio, so we’ve got two hawks to come at you from your back and your front at the same time.
ML: Well, look, I’m a hawk as well. I serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I want to make sure that we maintain our peace through strength dynamic that we’ve got in this country. I voted against the Rubio amendment, and also against the Paul amendment for the simple reason that I didn’t see a path under either one of them to increase Defense spending in a way that would allow us to avoid having to increase domestic discretionary non-Defense spending to a corresponding degree. We’ve got to start somewhere, and we’ve got to start at a minimum by not raising domestic discretionary non-Defense spending. So I would love to get to a point where we can figure out how to do that without having to have this spill over and bust through the caps of the BCA in a way that causes us to spend more in the areas where we don’t have to be spending for purposes of our national Defense.
HH: Now I thought about, and we were together an hour ago, and so I was thinking about this for most of the hour. And my response to that is that’s great, except the barbarians are at the gate. The enemy is here. Our forces are underfunded. The Marines are down to 180,000 on their way to 170,000. The Army’s underfunded, the Air Force is underfunded, we haven’t got Ohio Class submarines. You know the long list. So it’s great that we can’t fix it, but the bad guys don’t care.
ML: Right. It’s not great that we can’t fix it, and that leads us to a related point that I think is responsive to your question, which is that I’ve heard it said by some of our top Defense experts in the entire country that the single greatest threat to our national security is our national debt and our deficit which keeps this going. I mean, look, we’re $18 trillion dollars in debt. We spend $235 billion dollars every single year on paying interest on that debt. But that’s not the scary part. The scary part is that’s the same interest payment we had 20 years ago when our national debt was, what, a sixth or so of its current size. If our Treasury yield rates returned to their historic average, even assuming there’s not a rebound above that, within a very short period of time, we’d go from spending about $235 billion a year to about a trillion a year in interest. And that begs the question where are we going to get that roughly $800 billion dollar difference? Where are we, how are we going to make up for that? There’s not a tax increase fathomable that could help us bring in that kind of revenue that quickly. And by the way, in the process of trying, we would simultaneously decimate our economy and potentially decimate our ability to fund national Defense. And so in order to have peace through strength, you’ve got to have economic strength. And we’ve got to make sure that our government doesn’t swallow up our ability to fund national Defense.
HH: You know, Senator, once a week for the last ten years, John Campbell sat in that chair. He’s a deficit hawk. He was one of these guys that deficit is our biggest Defense problem, the debt is our biggest national security problem until 18 months ago. And he changed, and he said I have now taken a look at the world and I realized I’ve got to fund the national, it’s, our Constitution says provide for the common Defense, and he’s just going to break the cap on Defense spending. And he converted. He also retired, but he converted before he retired, and he started making votes in favor of that. What would it take, because you know, they are at the gates.
ML: Right, and look, the Republican budget that came out of the Senate last week does spend above the BCA caps when you take into account the funding that they put into OCO…
HH: True, true, true.
ML: The Overseas Contingency Operations. So it’s not as though we’re saying we have to stick to the caps exactly as they’ve got them without any kind of OCO adjustment. And so look, your point is well taken. We’ve got enemies at hand. We’ve got to make sure that we’re prepared to fight them. We also have to do so in a way that doesn’t impair our own ability for our economy to continue to fund our national Defense efforts.
HH: Now today, there were two people attacked Fort Meade. We don’t know anything about them, yet. I have to assume they’re terrorists. They were dressed as women wearing wigs. They were not women. One of them is dead, one of them is in surgery. We don’t know much about them, yet. Are you alarmed? You’re not on Senate Intelligence, but you’re on Armed Services, right?
HH: So are you alarmed by the spread of radical Islam to the lone wolf variety in the United States?
ML: Yes, it’s a clear and present threat to our national security. We’ve got to be very, very aware of it, and we’ve got to confront it, and we’ve got to acknowledge it for what it is and where it exists. And first of all, I would like to say that my thoughts and my prayers to go out to the families of those who were affected. This is an absolute tragedy, and it’s one that we’ve got to be ever-vigilant of an aware of, and willing to address and confront it.
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HH: Now we’re coming to the filibuster, and he’s a Supreme Court clerk, and so I’m just, I know better than to argue with Supreme Court clerks, because I always lose. Cruz and you, and you know, you don’t get to be Supreme Court clerks because you’re lucky, right? So I pointed out to you today, you defended the filibuster, and in front of this audience of right wingers who don’t want the filibuster. And I pointed out it’s not in the rules of the Constitution, and you had the perfect response. I want you to give that, spell that out. Why do you like the filibuster when it’s stopping the repeal of Obamacare and other things that conservatives want? And I’ll quote to you another retired member of your body who said sometimes something gets so broken that you have to break it in order to fix it, and that might be the filibuster.
ML: Well, something is definitely broken here, and I agree with your friend in saying that sometimes, you have to break that thing in order to fix it. I don’t necessarily think that that means the filibuster. You raise a fair point when you talk about the fact that there’s nothing in the Constitution that creates the filibuster. That’s absolutely true. But it’s also true that Article One, Section Five of the Constitution gives each house of Congress the right to create its own rules. The Senate over time has developed these rules that say look, in order to bring debate to a close on a particular piece of legislation, you’ve got to get three-fifths of the senators agreeing to bring that to a close. Over time, I think that has inured to the benefit of conservatives. Over time, I think that has helped us avoid the march toward European-style socialism. Overall, I think the net gain has been on the conservative side of the ledger there. Now reasonable minds can reach different conclusions on this one. I don’t think this one’s etched in stone. It is certainly not etched into the Constitution as a requirement. I just have yet to hear an argument that’s sufficiently compelling that would convince me that we’ve got to get rid of it.
HH: Well, here’s my Constitutional argument, and I’d love your response. You do absolutely have the authority to make your own rules, but the document anticipates the body acting by two-thirds majority. It anticipates the body acting by majority in other places when it says the Senate shall advise and consent.
HH: So it anticipates majority rule unless it says so otherwise. So I’m not sure that the framers, and I can recall nothing in the Federalists that anticipated a filibuster. They anticipated that the six year nature of the body would make it distinct from the House, not its rules.
ML: Well, that’s right, but they also didn’t foreclose any option on the part of the Senate to consider rules like this. It was the case in the Senate for most of the Senate’s existence up until 1913, I believe the shift occurred, that any one senator could prevent the Senate from coming to close, from bringing debate on a particular bill before the Senate to a close. In 1913, that changed, and initially, there was a supermajority rule that required I think three-fourths of the senators to agree to bring debate to a close. It was later lowered to two-thirds, and then later to three-fifths, where it stands right now. And so this is part of the tradition of the Senate that does create kind of a counter-majoritarian influence within the Senate. If somebody doesn’t want debate to be brought to a close, they can’t do it without three-fifths of the senators agreeing. It is still the case that a simple majority controls passage. But in order to get to passage, you’ve got to bring debate to a close first.
HH: But that then brings up the partisan argument, which is the Democrats had their way with you two years ago. They changed the rules. They broke the rules to change the rules.
ML: They did.
HH: And so if you don’t fight back, then you’re patsies. And if you don’t stand up to a schoolyard bully, you’ll be bullied again.
ML: Well, that’s right. Now they did that. They went nuclear, as the statement goes, by breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate to reduce the approval required for cloture on presidential nominees down to 51. My response to that is I’ve introduced legislation along with Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee that would make that rule change permanent by an official rule change. We’re trying to do the same thing that they did to us, but doing it the right way. I actually think there’s a strong argument to be made for reducing the threshold to a simple majority, especially when you’re talking about the confirmation of presidential nominees…
HH: Because of the language in the Appointments Clause?
ML: Well, it’s not just that. Even more importantly, it’s the nature of the executive calendar, the nature of the confirmation business. You have to, you have a simple binary choice when confirming or rejecting someone who’s been nominated by the president. You either confirm them or you don’t confirm them. You can’t amend a person. You can’t confirm a judge’s right hand but not her left. And so it makes sense to me that it should be a simple majority cloture standard on the executive calendar.
HH: Now on Judiciary, do you imaging voting for any Obama nominee between now and the conclusion of the President’s term given how they packed the DC Circuit in circumvention of the rules?
ML: Any Obama nominee, I certainly…
HH: To the courts, to the federal courts…
ML: To the federal courts? Yes, there are some nominees, particularly to the lower federal courts, the federal district courts, that I will vote to confirm. But that is not to say that I will vote for every one of them. I’m not someone who believes that the consequences of a presidential election are such that U.S. senators have to simply say well, it’s the president’s choice, I will ratify whatever the president decides to do with regard to nominations.
HH: If there’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court between now and the inauguration of a new president, think it’s appropriate that President Obama fill that?
ML: Well, I’m sure that he will make every effort to, particularly if a vacancy were to occur sometime this summer. I’m sure he will make a very strong effort to do that. And whether or not that person is able to be confirmed will depend on what kind of person he decides to nominate. But if that vacancy doesn’t occur by this summer, the longer, the more time that passes between now and the end of this presidency, the more difficult it’s going to be for this president to get through someone. For example, if it happened next summer, in the summer of 2016, I think it would be very, very difficult for the president to get someone confirmed.
HH: See, I am hoping that the Republicans, and I don’t know that you’ve taken a position on this, just say no. It doesn’t matter if Ruth Bader Ginsberg retires. We’re not filling that. The President’s had enough, he’s done enough interesting things already to this country via unilateralism that we’re not going to give him another vote on the Court.
ML: Well, that’s right. I mean, at some point next year, the Republicans in the Senate will invoke what’s known as the Leahy-Thurmond rule, whereby the party that controls the majority in the Senate will basically say we’re finished confirming people at this level who have been nominated to the federal courts.
HH: That’s called the Leahy-Thurmond rule?
HH: I was not familiar. One more quick segment with United States Senator Mike Lee. Visit his website, www.leeforsenate.com if you like clarity and Constitutionalism.
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HH: It’s always a pleasure to sit down with a member of the United States Senate, especially one, how old are you, Senator Lee?
ML: 43, but I read at the level of a 44 year old.
HH: All right, so if you go as long as Senator Thurmond, you’ve got 56 years to go in the United States Senate?
ML: Oh, sure. Sure, that’s hard to imagine.
HH: And so it’s always good to talk to a 56 year Senator. I want to conclude by talking about your book, and I want to remind people www.leeforsenate.com if you want to be for one of the Constitutional originalists in the Senate. That doesn’t mean you’re always going to agree with him, as he and I have been making very obvious. We have disagreements. But mostly, we agree 95% of the time. What is the deal in the year ahead for you, the prospect for getting anything done on Obamacare?
ML: Okay, so the Republicans in the Senate just passed a budget last week, just as the Republicans in the House passed a corresponding budget. One of the things that that budget calls for is the use of what’s called budget reconciliation instructions for the purpose of repealing Obamacare. In a nutshell, what that would allow us to do is to pass something, to get it not only out of the House, but also out of the Senate with only 51 votes to repeal Obamacare in its entirety. And that’s what I hope and expect that we’ll be doing in the next few months after this budget gets wrapped up, is casting a vote, putting legislation on the President’s desk repealing Obamacare. Now I don’t have any strong delusional expectation that the President’s going to sign that. But if, as expected, he chooses to veto it, he needs to be able to look the American people in the eye and be willing to explain to them why this law that has never enjoyed the support of a majority of the American people, why it should stand, why this law that has made health care less affordable and less accessible to the American people, why it should stand, why he’s vetoing it. And I think that’s a very important message.
HH: And when he does that, and I agree in the exercise. I think it’s very important to get him on the record, and I think it very important to get Democrats supporting his veto on the record as well. Can you then bring the medical device tax after in its wake and get rid of that, because I think you’ve got supermajorities. Not even the President can be for that dummy tax, can he?
ML: Yes, and I do think that’s another thing that’s coming after we take care of the full repeal aspect of it. I do think a repeal of the medical device tax is coming, and we do have broad-based bipartisan support to repeal that. Look, this was an ill-conceived tax to begin with, should not have been in there. It’s overly punitive, and it hurts a sector of our economy that we shouldn’t be hurting.
HH: And last question, Mike Pence is in trouble for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Indiana version. And I watched Peter Hamby on CNN earlier today, and talked to Jeb Bush about this as well, that no one’s supporting Mike Pence for signing a law that’s been in effect in the District of Columbia since 1993. It is the law in the District of Columbia since 1993. What is your reaction? Is this ginned up? Or is it a purposeful attempt to position the Republicans for loss in 2016?
ML: You know, I cannot imagine why someone would oppose religious freedom, why someone would oppose a neutrally-written law that is there for the purpose of making sure that government doesn’t harm people for expressing and exercising their freedom of religion.
HH: On that great note, Mike Lee, pleasure to have you in studio. We’ll see you back on the West Coast again soon. www.leeforsenate.com, America. Thanks for listening.
End of interview.