By OL Staff

Mike Lee made waves in 2010 when he upset sitting Sen. Bob Bennett in the Utah Republican primary to win the party’s nomination. Now the junior senator from Utah, Sen. Lee has become an intellectual force among conservatives in Congress by proposing solutions on a wide range of policy issues.

From the National Journal:

There is an Abraham Lincoln speech that Lee staffers say he just loves to quote—which, in fact, he does less than two minutes into our interview: “The purpose of government is to elevate the condition of men, lift artificial burdens from all shoulders, and clear the paths of laudable pursuits for all to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” …

Blending populist communitarianism with a libertarian suspicion of government puts Lee in the sweet spot for reform conservatives—that is, Republicans who want to put forward affirmative policy ideas instead of just fighting big government. “He’s been one of the real policy entrepreneurs since he came in,” says Yuval Levin, founding editor of National Affairs and a leader of the reform-conservative movement. “He’s one of a handful of members really interested in policy details and in turning conservative ideas into policy proposals.” More than anyone else, says conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, Lee has filled “the policy vacuum” in the Senate. “Conservatism for a lot of the Obama years moved away from being a policy-oriented movement,” Ponnuru says. “Senator Lee is playing an important role beefing up the policy content.” …

Highlights of Lee’s agenda include his welfare plan, which contains a mix of efforts to tighten work requirements, increase performance measurements on states, and require reporting of means-tested spending at the federal level; his Head Start bill, which shifts federal funding to block grants (a go-to move for conservatives) and addresses how grants are allotted, distributed, and spent; and his Working Families Flexibility Act, which would allow private-sector employers to give workers who clock overtime a choice between extra money and comp time.

Then there is his Transportation Empowerment Act, which would slash the federal gas tax and devolve authority for infrastructure projects to the states. “It’s just a very different way of thinking about the issue, and it takes a dry policy and applies a constitutionalist logic to it,” says Salam. “By moving away from shared responsibility for transportation to state responsibility, we move to a more competitive federalism.”

Lee’s work on education is also notable. His Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act looks to expand the range of providers eligible for federal accreditation (and, thus, federal loan dollars) by letting states set up alternative accreditation systems that could encompass nontraditional programs, like online courses and apprenticeships. “I think Lee’s staff have been forward thinking in a way others have not,” says the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Kelly, who spent time “spitballing ideas” with Lee’s office about overhauling accreditation.


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