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Sen. Mike Lee says Congress can’t keep delegating power to the executive branch

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee (right) discusses the powers of the federal government and the state of American politics with Sutherland Institute CEO Rick Larsen at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Aug. 22, 2023
Sean Higgins
Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee (right) discusses the powers of the federal government and the state of American politics with Sutherland Institute CEO Rick Larsen at the Hin Aug. 22, 2023

Speaking at the University of Utah, Sen. Mike Lee gave his thoughts on the state of politics in America during his stop at the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series.

In particular, the Utah Republican decried what he sees as a slow creep toward centralizing lawmaking power in the federal government and the executive branch.

“Over the last eight years or so, Congress has gotten by … with passing what sometimes amount to platitudes, broad aspirational statements, and then delegating the lawmaking power over to an executive branch department or agency,” Lee told Sutherland Institute CEO Rick Larsen.

Lee pointed to a recent Environmental Protection Agency rule aimed at decreasing air pollution as an example. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes joined a lawsuit challenging the rule and a federal court granted a stay in that case, preventing its enforcement for the time being.

But Lee added that both Republicans and Democrats are to blame for the overall trend, which he said has become more and more the norm since the post-depression New Deal era in the 1930s.

“Congress is the problem because we gave [these departments and agencies] this unbridled authority to begin with,” he said.

In a panel discussion after Lee’s remarks, some experts mused that the congressional gridlock prevalent in today’s political climate is partially to blame for the trend Lee is observing.

“I think when we have legislative bodies that are not enacting things that maybe a majority wants to see done, whatever that may be, it's only natural to revert to other avenues to accomplish those goals,” said University of Utah political science professor Michael Dichio.

In Lee’s view, pursuing those other avenues often leads to bad policy.

“This isn't because the people who run these agencies are bad or dumb or malicious so much as it is that they've got a limited view and they can't see everything all at once,” said Lee. “They're sometimes going to get things wrong or they're not always going to see everything.”

Lee is co-sponsoring a bill he said will address this very issue. The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny – or REINS — Act would require Congress to approve any new government rule or regulation that would impact the country’s economy by $100 million or more.

“I think most of us can agree that there is too much power in Washington,” he said.

After passing the Republican-led House in June, the REINS Act is awaiting action in the Democratic-majority Senate.

Party Politics

When it comes to partisanship in Congress, Lee said he has seen disturbing trends in that area, too, since he was first elected as a right-wing “tea party” candidate in 2010.

“Members are tending more and more to defer to and behave as if they worked for the legislative party leaders in their respective houses of Congress,” he said. “[Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell is my colleague from Kentucky. I don't work for the senator from Kentucky. I work for the people of Utah.”

Lee has not been shy about bucking his party. For example, he was one of only 11 senators to vote against the PACT Act in 2022, which is seen as one of the largest expansions of veterans’ health care benefits in decades.

On how to best take the temperature down in Washington, Lee stressed the importance of focusing on principle rather than on the personality.”

Lee has been known to have fiery takes on his personal social media accounts, but that was not apparent during his time on stage. Instead, he struck a cooperative tone, even stating he can’t think of a Democratic colleague he doesn’t like.

“Some of my favorite colleagues are people who I have to struggle a little bit more to find areas where we agree,” he said. “There's a great picture of me and Bernie Sanders hugging in the Washington Post … Those sorts of things happen.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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