Dec 12 2014
We can do better. The American people – and especially those serving in uniform – deserve better. And as we saw in the recent elections, the American people demand that we do better.
Oct 21 2014
And second, even if young people do care about politics, why should they care about what I – a conservative member of the Republican Party – have to say about it?"
Sep 18 2014
Sep 17 2014
At some point today or tomorrow the Senate will hastily consider – and likely pass – a massive, hodgepodge spending bill to fund every last department and program within the federal government... even those we know don’t work. The alternative – if you can call it that – is to deny funding for every last department and program within the federal government... even those we know are essential.
All or nothing: these are our only options. Government on autopilot or government without an engine.
The problem, Mr./Madam President, is that by funding the federal government through a massive, patchwork spending bill, we force the American people to choose between two bad options: pay for everything in government or pay for nothing at all; either fund the entire federal government tomorrow at the exact same level as today, or fund nothing within the federal government... not even to pay our soldiers or our judges... not even to provide care for our veterans or support our most vulnerable.
This kind of all-or-nothing proposition is dysfunctional, it’s anti-democratic, and it prevents Congress from doing its job – which, I remind my colleagues, is to represent the American people and to be faithful stewards of taxpayer money.
During the month of August I held a long series of town hall meetings across my home state of Utah. Whether I was in Cache County, in the northern reaches of the state, or down in the opposite corner, in Washington County, the people of Utah were clear about what they wanted: they demanded action.
Their concerns weren’t always the same – some worried about public lands, others were anxious about the economy, and many were troubled by the crisis at the border.
But they were all looking for answers – for solutions – from someone. Everywhere I went, they asked me: “What are you going to do? What are you going to do to get our country back on track?”
And I would tell them: as a matter of law and of constitutional authority, members of Congress have certain tools to address all of these concerns, but none is greater than the power of the purse. This is the power to allocate money to fund government operations: it’s what enables Congress – and only Congress – to reform dysfunctional government.
Encompassed within the power to give money is the power to withhold money. In this case, the power of the purse is the most potent and effective instrument Congress can use to hold the Executive branch accountable.
So when the Administration fails to follow the law – as this Administration has done so frequently – Congress can demand answers and accountability by using the power of the purse as leverage.
After several of these town hall conversations I began to notice that, at this point in my answer, most people began to look hopeful that something could actually get done in Washington.
But then I’d have to break the bad news. I’d have to tell them that all those things their representatives should be able to do – like fixing broken government programs, ensuring the solvency of Social Security and Medicaid, and impeding lawless actions by the Executive branch – simply cannot get done because the Democratic leadership in the Senate insists that our federal government operate on autopilot.
This is the problem with the CR: when Congress has only one opportunity to exercise its power of the purse – by voting for or against an all-or-nothing spending package – Congress has essentially no opportunity to exercise its power of the purse.
In the CR we will consider tomorrow, there are several provisions that deserve their own consideration and debate – such as reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, extending the Internet Tax Freedom Act, and authorizing military action in Syria. None of these measures – and certainly not something that could put American lives at risk – should be hurried through on an all-or-nothing vote.
This is why the CR matters for everyone in this country: it is the principal reason our government is so dysfunctional and so unaccountable.
A government on autopilot leaves Congress paralyzed… powerless to implement meaningful government reforms, and powerless to hold the President and his administration responsible for their actions.
This is not how our government is supposed to operate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a better way.
As recently as fiscal year 2006, Congress passed eleven free-standing appropriations bills. To put that in context, that’s more than Congress has passed for all fiscal years since then, combined.
The House still routinely passes free-standing appropriations measures. For fiscal year 2015, the House has passed seven such bills. The Senate, by contrast, has passed zero. Not only has the Senate passed none of its own, it has refused to pass – or even vote on – any of those passed by the House.
Before the Democratic leadership took control of the Senate, Congress would spend most of the spring and summer of each year discussing, debating, and eventually figuring out how much taxpayer money to spend and on what.
Congress would consider separate spending bills, one-by-one. Each of these bills would allocate money to fund the departments, agencies and programs within a certain area of the government – like defense or transportation, homeland security or health care. And each spending bill originated in one of the corresponding subcommittees in the House and Senate.
This is what we call “the appropriations process,” and it made sense that it would take up most of our time, because, as members of Congress, we have a solemn obligation to represent the people and to be faithful stewards of taxpayer money.
That is how Congress is supposed to operate, according to its own rules, according to historical precedent, and, more to the point, according to common sense.
But times have changed. What Congress used to deliberate on for months, we now rush through in an afternoon... without opportunity for amendment or full debate. What used to be the subject of open and robust debate is now trivialized and treated as a formality.
Mr./Madame President, the American people deserve better. Indeed, as I discovered while visiting with people from one corner of Utah to the other, the American people demand we do better.
I think we can and we must.
Sep 11 2014
“Attention all citizens! To assure the fairness of elections by preventing the disproportionate expression of the views of any single powerful group. The government has decided that the following associations of persons shall be prohibited from speaking or writing in support of any candidate.” This is a statement that I have taken directly from a dissenting opinion issued by associate justice Antonin Scalia in a case called Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. A 1989 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States.
The concern expressed in that dissenting opinion, the opening line of which I have just read, comes to mind when we review the legislation in front of this body right now, Senate Joint Resolution 19, an attempt, a wholesale effort to repeal the First Amendment of the United States, to undo its most fundamental protections, protections that protect the right of every American to speak out on issues of public concern, to try to influence the outcome of elections, to try to dictate the course of our entire country.
Now, fortunately, this precedent that Justice Scalia was expressing concerns with was overruled. It was overruled in a case called Citizens United, which has itself become the target of S.J Res 19.
In other words, because the Constitution has now been properly interpreted to protect the right of the American people, to join together and form voluntary associations and to use those associations to try to influence the outcome of elections, my colleagues across the aisle have decided, rather than to follow the Constitution, to change it. Rather than to follow its dictates, to get rid of those portions that would interfere with the power of government.
This is something we cannot tolerate. This is something we cannot ignore. This is something that we must do something about, and we have to do it today.
As Justice Scalia explained in his dissent in the Austin case, this principle, this type of approach whereby we allow the government to limit the expressive capabilities of the American people, to limit the ability of the American people to form voluntary associations and speak out on matters of public concern is utterly contrary, not only to our case law, but to the text of the first amendment, and it's inconsistent with the absolutely central truth underlying the first amendment.
And the idea here is that government cannot be trusted to assure through censorship and make no mistake. That's what this is about, is censorship. The quote -- unquote -- fairness of political debate.
So we're here ostensibly to debate the relative merits of senate joint resolution 19. Which would up-end well over two centuries of understanding that there are certain things the government can't do, there are certain things the government would never be trusted to do, the government can't censor our speech, particularly our political speech.
We're here to debate that, and yet among those who have introduced this legislation, among those who have sponsored this legislation, we've heard, if I'm not mistaken, from only two. We've heard two speeches.
This is a profound and disturbing message to the American people. We're trying to up-end the cornerstone of American republican democracy, and yet we've had two speeches in support of it. This is something that ought to alarm us terribly.
I was pleased to hear moments ago from my distinguished colleague, the senior senator from Illinois. I respect the senior senator from Illinois. He and I have worked together on a lot of pieces of legislation. We have worked together most recently on the Smarter Sentencing Act, which I think is an important bipartisan attempt to reform our federal criminal sentencing code which is in serious need of being reformed.
I also respect the senior senator from Illinois for some statements that he made a few years ago when another amendment had been proposed. I at least respect the approach that he took in urging caution before undertaking any effort to undo, to weaken, to undermine the bill of rights.
Here is a statement that he made on June 26, 2006. “The Bill of Rights has served this nation since 1791, and with one swift blow of this ax, we're going to chop into the first amendment.”
He was concerned about that. He was concerned also when on the same day he made a similar comment. Instructive here I think when he noted that it is a matter with which we will likely debate the rest of this week, the week in which he was speaking in 2006, meaning this is an urgent matter. It's a -- it's a matter of great concern to the American people. When we are talking about changing the first amendment or any component to the Bill of Rights.
He continued – “the reason we're going to spend this much time on it is because this document, this one-page document in that case, represents the risk change in America. If this amendment were to be ratified, it would mark the first time in our nation's history that we would amend the Bill of Rights to the United States constitution.”
On the same day he also said “It takes a great deal of audacity for anyone to step up and suggest to change the constitution. I think we should show a little humility around here when it comes to changing the constitution. So many of my colleagues are anxious to take a roller to a Rembrandt.”
I couldn't agree more, especially when we're talking about not just freedom of speech, but poor political speech, which is the subject of senate joint resolution 19.
Make no mistake -- the fundamental purpose, the most important objective underlying the free speech clause and the free press clause was to protect the right of the people to engage in political speech and make no mistake, the purpose of this amendment is to enhance congress' power to restrict political speech.
In fact, its entire purpose focuses on efforts to spend money to influence elections, the core of political speech.
Let's go back for a minute to the dissenting opinion issued by justice Scalia in the Austin case I referenced a few minutes ago. He explained in that dissenting opinion that there are some things that we understandably don't want government to do. There are a lot of things that we do in the Constitution that are all about outlining what the powers of government are.
We explain what power congress has, what power the president has. We explain further that power is not delegated to congress or reserved for the states or to people. And then we also identify in the Bill of Rights that there are certain areas that are just out of bounds for government, areas where we don't want government to tread. This is one of those areas.
As justice Scalia explained, the premise of our Bill of Rights is that there are some things, even some seemingly desirable things, that government cannot be trusted to do.
The very first of these is establishing the restrictions upon speech that will assure --quote, unquote -- fair political debate.
The incumbent politician who says he welcomes full and fair debate is no more to be believed than the entrenched monopolist who says he welcomes full and fair competition.
This is what we face here. This is the risk we face here. We're assured by the proponents of this legislation -- that is, both of them, both of those who have shown up so far to speak in support of this -- that this will still allow debate to occur, and yet how are we to believe this when what they're proposing is to expand congress' power to limit that right to participate in an open public debate, to undertake efforts to influence the outcome of elections and thus dictate the course of an entire nation?
Justice Scalia concluded with the thought that as he put it, the premise of our system is that there is no such thing as too much speech. That the people are not foolish, but intelligent. And will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
He refutes the notion that a healthy democratic system can survive the legislative power to prescribe how much political speech is too much, who may speak and who may not. When we try to weaken this understanding, we're playing with fire.
Whenever congress attempts to expand its power -- for that matter whenever any government attempts to expand its power, it does so inevitably at the expense of individual liberty.
Here where it tries to expand its influence over political debate, where it purports to have the ability to expand its power over core political speech, it does so inevitably, inescapably, unavoidably at the expense of the free expressive rights of a free people.
This is one of the main core principles upon which our country was founded. We became a nation against a backdrop in which we found ourselves subject to a large, distant, powerful national government one headed by a king and a parliament. Our former London-based national government recognized no boundaries around its authority. It had for centuries interfered with the right of the people to express their grievances. It had for centuries supported criminal actions against persons who engaged in what they described under their laws as seditious liable.
In other words, if you if you criticized the government, if you criticized a government official, you could be and presumably would be criminally prosecuted for doing so. Truth was not a defense. In fact, truth made it even worse from the viewpoint of the government because it was more difficult to refute.
So people were routinely prosecuted for criticizing the government. We cannot, we must not take even one step in the direction of expanding government's authority when it comes to speech that is at the core of our political system.
Look, our political system isn't perfect. Our political system isn't something that everybody necessarily is inclined to enjoy. But our political system does keep us free and it keeps us free only to the extent that individuals are allowed to speak their mind without fear of retribution from the government.
Only to the extent that individuals, rich and poor alike, are able to say what they want and join together and form voluntary associations for the purpose of influencing the outcome of elections so that they can have some chance at standing up to a big government that affects so many of their rights, that affects so much of how they're going to provide for the needs of their families and their communities. When the people are intimidated by a government that recognizes no boundaries around its authority, everyone suffers.
This, Mr. President, is an issue that is neither republican nor democratic. It is neither liberal nor conservative. It is simply American.
It's time for the American people to stop simply expecting congress to continue to expand its power at the expense of their individual liberty.
It's time for the American people to stop simply expecting that their rights have to bow to the interests of all-powerful incumbency in Washington, D.C.
It's time for the American people to expect more. It's time for the American people to expect freedom.
We expect freedom and we will defend freedom when we defeat senate joint resolution 19. Thank you, Mr. President.
Aug 21 2014
It is my distinct privilege to welcome all of you to the inaugural – and hopefully first annual – Utah “Solutions Summit.”
In future years, the theme of the conference will change, but the purpose will stay the same. We want to bring together Utah’s leaders – in business and civil society and all levels of government - to discuss what we can do together to meet the greatest challenges facing our state and our country.
This year, we decided to focus on reforming our regulatory system. It’s one of the greatest challenges facing our country, holding back economic opportunity, and stifling American exceptionalism.
When you talk to people in the private sector – whether people in large corporations or very small businesses, non-profit groups, too – that word comes up again and again: stifling.
Government regulations have put up so many barriers that people today sometimes feel like they can hardly move.
And the effects on our nation are enormous. For instance, our economy is becoming less entrepreneurial. Business start-ups have been declining for years. This is dulling our economy’s competitive edge. That may be tolerable for some people fortunate enough to have already succeeded in life, but for young people just starting out, for poor families trying to work their way out of poverty, for middle class families facing increasing uncertainty... stagnancy is crippling.
The United States is facing an opportunity crisis, up and down the economic ladder, and government is too often only making it worse.
Millions of Americans are out of work – many are long-term unemployed. Yet today one out of three jobs requires a government license – government permission just to work.
And once you do have a job, there are thousands of pages of Don’t do this... Not like that... That’s not approved.
Now, government may mean well... But that’s no excuse for smothering people with so many nagging rules that they squeeze all the adventure, discovery, and freedom out of life. Government has become like one of those “helicopter parents” you see at the park, nervously hovering over their children to make sure they only ever do perfectly safe things and only under mommy and daddy’s supervision.
When we see these helicopter parents – and my kids tell me the really tough ones are called “Black Hawks” – we wince, right? Not only for the parents themselves, who we know are unnecessarily stressed out of their minds. But we feel for those kids, too, who never get to explore and overcome the challenges in life that enable growth and make us all who we are.
That’s what regulations are doing today. Just a few weeks ago, the federal government issued new rules that effectively ban school bake sales. A few years ago, Washington banned the production of incandescent light bulbs. The federal government still regulates how large a toilet tank you’re allowed to have in your house. The city of New York recently banned Big Gulps. Supposedly this is all for our own good – government knows better.
But these and other rules do not protect the American people from themselves – they prevent the American people from being themselves. And they prevent the economy from growing and innovating accordingly.
This isn’t the so-called Nanny State – that’s an insult to a lot of great nannies! This is “helicopter government,” hovering over us like an overbearing parent.
But there are two problems with this arrangement. First, we’re adults. And second, the government is the American people’s child, not the other way around. We created it. We’re supposed to tell it what to do. We’re supposed to define its boundaries.
So we should not see reforming the regulatory system as a kind of ideological revolution. It’s more like giving Washington a badly needed time-out.
I don’t need to recite to you statistics about how our $2 trillion federal regulatory state hurts businesses and holds back our economy. You are the ones who work in those burdened businesses in this sluggish economy, and so you know the problem first-hand.
But there is one statistic worth highlighting. To my mind it’s a key to thinking about solutions to our regulatory problems.
The figure is: 51-to-1. This is the ratio of regulations issued by bureaucrats to laws passed by Congress in 2013.
A lot of people say the explosion of the regulatory state is a usurpation of congressional authority. But it’s more like subcontracting. Congress has given the executive branch this authority for its own convenience.
We get to pass laws and boast that we “did something.” But then if it doesn’t work out, we can join the public in outrage against those incompetent bureaucrats who messed up.
Seen in this light, helicopter government is actually a win-win for Congress: all credit, and no blame. After all, as legal scholar John Hart Ely put it, “Accountability is pretty frightening stuff.”
But it’s not win-win, is it? Though it may make individual politicians’ re-elections easier, it is corroding public trust in our political institutions. The American people are tired of bad public policies, and their elected officials’ most common response is that it’s someone else’s fault.
So as we think about solutions to America’s regulatory sclerosis, we need to think about more than just better regulations. We need to think about the underlying system, to once again line up the incentives of the policymakers and the public they serve.
And that’s exactly why we’re here today: if Congress ever takes up real regulatory reform it’s going to be because of a coordinated, constant effort from outside the Washington beltway. That includes everyone in this room, because, like most Americans, the citizens of Utah are practical people, who specialize in solving problems, not manufacturing them.
So we’ve got two problems to solve here. First, the cost of regulations to our economy, and second, the dysfunction unaccountable policymaking visits on our society. I’d like to add a third point to consider, as well.
One of the biggest problems with regulations is that they are rarely evenly distributed throughout the economy. Rather, rules are written in such a way that specifically hurts some businesses and helps others. This is not only unfair – it is corrupting. It incentivizes businesses to invest their money in influence instead of innovation.
There is a reason that Washington, D.C. is home to six of the ten wealthiest counties in America today – despite the fact that it produces almost nothing of intrinsic economic value to the economy.
And because all these regulations usually increase overhead costs, they tend to be more easily borne by large, incumbent businesses than by smaller, younger start-ups.
But it’s precisely those new businesses that produce the majority of job creation, and inject into the economy the competitive energy that compels all firms to constantly adapt and innovate.
And as difficult as regulations can be on new or would-be entrepreneurs, they are far more destructive to far more vulnerable Americans, the poorest among us, trapped in the margins of our society.
The only way for individuals and families with low incomes and low skills to climb the economic ladder is to work more, work harder, and acquire new skills. But government regulation of commerce, labor, and education all conspire to pull that economic ladder up out of the reach of the Americans grasping for those bottom rungs. The regulatory status quo is leaving them behind – and we have a moral duty to change that.
So regulatory reform, then, should have three goals:
- Freeing the economy from the stifling burdens of helicopter government;
- Restoring political accountability to the regulatory process; and
- Restoring equal opportunity for all businesses and all Americans, so that success in America is earned, not earmarked.
And happily, even with the helicopter government hovering overhead, the American people are starting to re-assert their control over their own economy.
Everywhere you look, you see the growth of the so-called “sharing economy.” Companies like Uber, KickStarter, and AirBnB have followed the lead of eBay and Craigslist and found success by tapping into the greatest resource in our entire economy – our people.
Personally, I don’t love the term “sharing economy.” Because in a free enterprise system, every business is in the sharing business – collaborative cooperation for mutual benefit. That’s the definition of free enterprise.
At the end of the day, Uber is no different from 7-11. The genius of the market is that it ties personal success to interpersonal service. It’s part of what has always made America strong and prosperous and exceptional.
But these companies increasingly find themselves the target of regulatory interference, driven by special interests that are trying to use the power of the state to protect their status-quo privileges.
Here we have concrete examples of exactly the kind of start-up capitalism the American people need, and the kind of unfair, un-American regulation we are here today to talk about solving.
So the question before us today is: how do we create a system that provides clear, commonsense regulations that help the economy work while protecting the American people’s freedom to earn their success in the market?
That’s what we’re here to discuss, and I look forward to hearing your ideas.
From my perspective in the Senate, I think accountability has to be a part of the answer. People who face regular election would never support many of the regulations we’re dealing with. And they don’t want to have to.
I think we need to take that option away from them. I think we need to start moving the regulatory process out of the nameless, faceless bureaucracy and back into Congress. Right now, the main reason government imposes onerous regulations is that no one gets fired for it. If Congress were directly accountable for them, you can be sure heads would roll in the next election. That’s where change comes from – by forcing government to work for the people instead of the other way around.
There are a couple of ideas out there to move policy in this direction. One idea is the REINS Act, which I am co-sponsoring along with Sen. Rand Paul.
Another idea that I’ve been working on, which I’ve discussed with some of you and hope to get more input going forward, is a new congressional regulatory budget process.
The idea would be to force Congress to vote every year on the amount of regulatory cost each federal agency could impose on the economy. We could debate it, get input through an oversight process, and force ourselves to prioritize. Which rules are essential, and which are just getting in the way?
Forcing Congress to take ownership over the laws imposed on the American people will improve the incentives for us to finally get those rules right. At the very least, it could bring some valuable discipline to the system and start to clear the brush of outdated and unnecessary regulations.
I’m happy to discuss these ideas more with you throughout the day. But we organized this event to listen. To get this right, we need specialized knowledge about the industries and businesses that actually have to live under all these regulations. And that’s why we invited you all here today.
There is an old saying in politics that you can’t beat something with nothing. It seems to me that those of us who want a better regulatory system have to do more than just oppose the one we have; we need to propose the one we want.
My goal for this conference is to begin a dialogue that can help inform policymakers at every level of government to start defining and refining exactly what a modernized, reformed regulatory system would look like. Thank you very much.
 Quoted in “Congress and the New Administrative State,” The Heritage Foundation.
Remarks at the Reagan Ranch
Aug 13 2014
It is more than an honor to be with you here today. For a conservative politician, speaking at Rancho del Cielo is like a musician playing a set at Sun Records or a ballplayer taking the field at Fenway Park.
I am humbled by the opportunity.
My first real exposure to the Reagan Administration occurred when I was about ten years old. My father, the late Rex E. Lee, served as the Solicitor General of the United States during President Reagan’s first term in office. It is the job of the Solicitor General to serve as the federal government’s advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court. Like every lawyer, the Solicitor General has a client—it’s the federal government, and specifically the presidential administration in power. As a practical matter, that meant that my dad was President Ronald Reagan’s voice in the Supreme Court.
When my dad was nominated by President Reagan and was confirmed by the Senate, my family made a move from our familiar surroundings in Provo, Utah to McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. When school started in the fall of 1981, I was full of apprehension, and with good reason. The D.C. area somehow didn’t seem nearly as friendly as Provo. I felt like an outsider at my new school. And I was.
I tried to take some comfort in knowing that my dad was doing exciting things for the country as a key official in the Reagan Administration, which (even as a ten-year-old) I understood would be historic.
I still remember when my dad was getting ready to make his first appearance before the Supreme Court as President Reagan’s Solicitor General. He readied his “morning suit,” the ceremonial uniform traditionally worn by the Solicitor General in the Supreme Court; it consists of a long-tailed coat and striped pants. While embarrassed at the mere thought of my dad appearing in public dressed like that, I was intrigued by his new job and wildly curious about what went on in the highest Court in the land.
Although I didn’t understand everything that went on in the Court, I loved to watch my dad argue there, advancing the official positions of the Reagan Administration on important issues involving the Constitution and the role of the federal government. What I learned most of all, perhaps, is that there is a cadence and a rhythm to being a good advocate for good government.Just as there is a familiar cadence among skilled lawyers, there is also a familiar cadence to conservatism. No one understood that cadence better or mastered it more completely than Ronald Reagan. He had the cadence of confidence. He had the cadence of courage. He had the cadence of compassion.
The next time you place a call to the Reagan Ranch, you should hope to be put on hold. If you are lucky enough to have that happen to you, you will hear that confident cadence of courage in the voice of Ronald Reagan. It is my hope that today and moving forward, those of us who honor his legacy will not just talk about him, but listen to him, and do our best to learn from and ultimately act like him.
For all Americans – but for conservatives and Republicans in particular - the legacy of Ronald Reagan will always serve as an inspiration. But it should also serve as a challenge.
It’s that part – Reagan’s enduring challenge to the movement and the party and the nation he revived – that I’d like to discuss today.
As you know, this is the 33rd anniversary of President Reagan’s signing of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981.
Today, conservatives tend to think of that moment as the beginning of Reagan’s – and the country’s - triumphant era, which would eventually usher in the longest peacetime recovery in American history, victory in the Cold War abroad, and the restoration of the American Dream at home.
Twenty million new jobs. A forty-nine-state landslide. “Tear down this wall.” “Shining city on a hill.” Cadence and courage.
That’s the Reagan conservatives all remember and revere. But I submit that is not the only Reagan conservatives need to study and emulate most today.
The obvious achievements following August 1981 provide a showcase of what we can learn from our 40th president. But some of the most important lessons we can take are from Reagan’s hard and heroic work leading up to his electoral victory in 1980.
The four-year stretch between 1976 and 1980 was a time similar to our own. The unemployment rate was coming down, but still too high. The economy was recovering, but not enough to restore broad prosperity. Energy dysfunction, rising prices and an unfair tax system were eating up what gains working families did see in their take-home pay.
But it wasn’t just about statistics. Humiliating failures of leadership at home and abroad throughout the previous decade had taken their toll as well. A psychological pall was descending on the country, leaving Americans uncharacteristically anxious and pessimistic. When grinding stagflation steered us toward yet another recession, many Americans began to wonder if our best days had come and gone.
It was in that time, in my view, that Reagan did perhaps the most important work of his career.
Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s was a prominent figure, but not a powerful one. He was no longer governor. His primary challenge against a sitting president of his own party had failed, and made him a pariah among a resentful Republican Establishment in Washington.
And the conservative movement he led was once again in the political wilderness.
The situation was bleak. But, as always, where others saw obstacles, Reagan saw opportunities.
He saw what too many in Washington did not: that a disconnect had opened between the American people and their leaders. President Carter’s approval rating fell into the 30s, and Congress’s into the 20s.
The Republican establishment – timid and unimaginative by nature - hoped the Democrats’ unpopularity might allow Republicans to win a few elections by default.
But this status-quo strategy did not interest Reagan.
Reagan wanted to build a new Republican Party, a new majority coalition, a new conservative movement that would not just cut across party lines... but permanently redraw them.
Reagan noticed that, aside from America’s political and economic elite, the rest of the country suffered under increasingly liberal policies. The political, corporate, and media opinion leaders were doing just fine. The people shouldering the brunt of big government’s failure were the working men and women of and aspiring to America’s middle class.
They were the ones whose neighborhoods saw rising crime rates. They were the ones whose communities were threatened by family breakdown. They were the ones whose jobs were hanging by a thread. They were the ones whose children couldn’t to go to college, whose sons and brothers came back from Vietnam only to be insulted by those they had fought to protect.
They were the ones who couldn’t afford gas and groceries because of the energy crisis and inflation.
Unlike the poor, who attracted Washington’s sympathy, and the rich, who could influence public policy, the mass of Americans in the middle were being ignored, slighted, and left behind by the political class in Washington.
The 19th century economist William Graham Sumner had a term for the American caught in the middle: “the forgotten man.”
As Sumner put it in his famous essay of the same name:
“[The forgotten man] works, he votes, generally he prays-- but he always pays--yes, above all, he pays... his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies... He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given... All the burdens fall on him, or on her, for ... the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman.”
It was these familiar friends and neighbors from all races and creeds and regions - people all Americans know and most Americans are - that Ronald Reagan believed made our nation good and great and beautiful. They were the ones, Reagan understood, conservatism could help the most.
Indeed, in a National Review essay a month after the 1964 election - before his name was ever on a ballot - Reagan reminded a defeated conservative movement:
[QUOTE] “We represent the forgotten American-that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” [UNQUOTE]
To Ronald Reagan, these Americans were never forgotten.
From the beginning, he built his politics around a profound respect for the honest, hardworking men and women who made America work.
Many of these Americans, like Reagan himself, believed government should stand on the side of the little guy against unfair concentrations of political and economic power.
They still believed that. And so did Reagan.
It’s just that by the late 1970s, the Democratic Party’s leadership in Washington had gone Washington. The New Left did not oppose, but had come to enjoy, the unfair privileges of concentrated power. The ruling class in Washington not only ignored working families’ interests, but openly disparaged their values.
Now, Reagan knew that while middle class Americans were disillusioned with Washington Democrats, they were equally suspicious of Washington Republicans—with good reason. Liberalism may have been failing, but to many Americans in the late 1970s, conservatism was at best a cobwebbed theory.
Reagan needed a way to transform this anti-liberal majority into a pro-conservative majority.
He didn’t want to spin them, or play on their fears. He respected them: he wanted actually to persuade them.
He knew that abstract theories and negative attacks weren’t going to cut it. Reagan needed to make conservatism new, real, and relevant.
He rebuilt conservatism with a concrete agenda of innovative reforms to directly help and empower all of the forgotten Americans whom liberalism always leaves behind.
He advocated marginal tax-rate reduction. This, Reagan correctly promised, would allow workers to keep more of their own income, raise wages, and create new jobs.
He advocated a strong dollar. This, Reagan correctly promised, would help us gain control over the inflation that was gnawing away at middle-class wages, savings, and aspirations.
And he advocated an aggressive defense build-up. This, Reagain correctly promised, would help us expose and defeat an aggressive, atheistic, and violent empire that threatened the life of every American, and the future of every child.
So often, Reagan’s success is chalked up to his personal attributes - his charm, his humor, his political and communication skills. He had all those things when he ran for president the first time. But alas, those personal attributes alone were not enough.
We must always remember that in 1976, conservatives found a leader for the ages... but they still lost. By 1980, they had forged an agenda for their time, and only then—with an agenda and a messenger for that agenda—did they win.
Armed with this agenda, Reagan not only confronted liberalism head-on, he also connected with those long-forgotten Americans by aligning his movement, his party, and his message around them.
It’s time for us to do it again.
The similarities between the late 1970s and today seem to grow by the hour.
Now, as then, our economy is struggling. The great American middle class is beset with anxiety. Stagnant wages don’t keep up with the rising cost of living. For too many Americans, opportunities seem to be narrowing, and the American Dream seems to be slipping out of reach.
Meanwhile, a chasm of distrust is opening between the American people and their government. Both parties are seen as incapable of producing innovative solutions to growing problems, or uninterested in even trying. Reagan’s “forgotten Americans” are once again being left behind.
Once again, the Left has betrayed the trust of the American people. But the Right has not won it back.
So it seems to me that conservatives today need to do what Reagan did in the late 1970s: identify the great challenges holding back America’s working families, and propose concrete, innovative solutions to help overcome them.
Just like Reagan did, as conservatives today we need to re-apply our principles to the challenges of the moment. We need to offer the country a new, positive reform agenda that remembers America’s forgotten families and puts the federal government back on their side.
A real conservative reform agenda has to do more than just cut big government. It has to fix broken government. Reagan did just that a generation ago. Since then, new challenges have emerged, demanding repair – and conservative principles can once again point us toward exciting, innovative solutions.
I find it interesting that most Americans feel forgotten, left out of the debate, left behind in their efforts to get ahead, while shouldering the burdens of failed policies, without a voice in what matters most. The ironic part of having a podium and a microphone is that most Americans want someone in Washington not to speak to them, but to listen to them. “Fix it,” they say. “Turn it around,” they demand. “Will government ever work for me, or will I always be working for it?”
Reagan listened to the forgotten and the disillusioned American. Can we be our best? I know that we can at least be better. Congress can do better. We can expect more out of our leaders, more out of ourselves. We can fix, cut, and tear down walls that confine our liberty—in any era. We can expect more. We can expect reform.Let me give you a few examples.
A conservative reform agenda needs to reduce taxes for families. Today, marginal tax rates are much lower than they were in August 1981. They are so low that almost half of all households pay no income tax. But most working families are still overtaxed, some by thousands of dollars a year. How? Because of the hidden double tax the current system imposes on parents through the payroll tax to fund our senior entitlement programs.
Many tax-reform plans today ignore this problem, and would actually raise taxes on working parents.
For single parents, this might as well be a “Keep Out” sign on the front door of the middle class. It’s an unfair attack on individuals, families, and neighborhoods – forcing them to make decisions based on what government wants instead of what they want.
Conservative tax reform today needs to fix this unfair parent tax penalty, to level the playing field for the hardworking families raising the next generation of Americans.
A conservative reform agenda also needs to spur economic growth.
New jobs come from new businesses. But all the taxes and regulations government foists on the economy actually hurt newer, smaller businesses and help large, politically connected corporations, which can afford all the lawyers and lobbyists to comply with all the rules. People who fear that the economy is rigged today are right. It is, and government rigs it.
Today in Washington, economic policy is driven by a corrupt alliance of big government and big business conspiring to keep out the new, disruptive competitors that innovate, transform, and create new jobs and growth.
True conservative reform should level the playing field for all businesses – small and large, new and old. That’s where new jobs, innovation, and growth come from – from Main Street, not Wall Street, K Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Look at our nation’s infrastructure. America needs more highways, more bridges, more local transit. But the old federal transportation trust fund is now permanently insolvent because 20% of the money it takes in is skimmed right off the top by special interests, bureaucracy, and inefficiency.
Real conservative transportation reform could cut out those Beltway middle-men. We need to create a 21st-century, open-source transportation network of sustainable, local innovation that empowers America’s diversity and ingenuity.
Another example is our broken higher-education system.
Today, the exploding costs of and restricted access to college are leaving millions of workers without the skills to succeed in the global economy. Millions more are being saddled with more debt than they’ll ever be able to repay.
Washington sees this structural dysfunction, and immediately launches into an argument about... the interest rate on student loans. We shouldn’t be arguing about tenths-of-a-percent on $40,000 tuition – we should be fixing the system so college doesn’t cost so much in the first place. And we need to increase access to new schools that can accommodate the needs of non-traditional students, like single parents, who can’t afford to study full time.
A conservative reform agenda must confront a welfare system that isolates the less fortunate. A reformed system would start to bring the poor back into our economy and civil society.
Real welfare is not about dependency, but mobility – designed to make poverty temporary instead of just tolerable.
A conservative reform agenda must include plans for an energy revolution. Just look at what’s going on in North Dakota and Texas and elsewhere. Let it create all the jobs and opportunities and energy independence it can. Let all energy producers compete on a level playing field – new technologies and old, large businesses and small – with equal opportunity for all and cronyist subsidies and special treatment for none.
And finally, this approach shows us that we can’t just cut Obamacare, or even repeal it and go back to the old system we had before. Instead, we need to move forward with real healthcare reforms that empower patients and doctors, not big government and big insurance companies.
Under the radar of the mainstream media and Beltway politics, the conservative reform agenda we need is starting to take shape.
As you can see, the content is different from Reagan’s agenda. But the goal is the same – reforming outdated policies to put government back to work for those forgotten Americans ... growing our economy and strengthening our society... and finally bringing the American Dream back into the reach of every American willing to work for it.
Like Reagan’s, the agenda I am describing is based on something too often missing in our politics today: respect for the American people.
As president, Ronald Reagan understood that the forgotten Americans were the people really in charge. And they still are.
The people – not billionaires on Wall Street - are the customers who decided which products and services and businesses would rise and fall.
The people – not the activists and academics and celebrities – decide the values that guide our neighborhoods and define our culture.
And Ronald Reagan was okay with that. He celebrated it.
His agenda was designed to give ordinary Americans even more power to make those decisions. He respected them and trusted them, and thought the government should simply get out of the way. He knew the answer was not to get America to trust Washington; it was to get Washington to trust America.
Today, some see it as ironic that as Reagan decentralized power to a diverse, divided nation... we came back together. But it’s not ironic at all. It’s the tried-and-true genius of the American way of life that has sustained our exceptional republic for more than two centuries.
Reagan’s agenda was an attempt to empower Americans to come together to make our economy more wealthy and our society more rich.
Reagan knew – and proved to a cynical elite – that freedom doesn’t mean you’re on your own; it means we’re all in this together.
And really, that is Ronald Reagan’s enduring challenge to conservatives, and Republicans, and all Americans: to believe in each other. To trust and respect the courage and industry and wisdom and ingenuity and compassion and hope of our people.
A renewed commitment to reform can not only put America on the path to recovery, but reunite our nation after too many years of bitter division... and empower our people after too many years of falling behind.
A new generation of problems demands a new agenda of solutions: to answer Reagan’s challenge, and to once again remember America’s forgotten families.
Ronald Reagan signaled the cadence of courage from this spot 33 years ago. It still echoes from these hills. Today our duty is to answer the call.We must dare to be better. Dare to look ahead past the next election, into the next decade and beyond. Dare to make the changes today that will shape the America of the future.
Enlist as 21st-Century Reagan revolutionaries. See beyond the next eight years into the next 80. Join me in taking the road less traveled. We are the forgotten Americans who have new ideas, start businesses, start families, volunteer as room mothers and little-league coaches, we are the flag raisers, the builders, the workers and the inventors. We are the dreamers and the stewards, we are the shopkeepers by day and the homemakers at days’ end.
We are the people who James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, had in mind and Ronald Reagan did not forget. We are the light emanating from the city on a hill; we are the keepers of the flame, the guardians of liberty.
We are the people—the unassuming heroes marching forward in Reagan’s cadence of confidence in that quiet adventure we still call the American Dream.