Today, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said that Republicans need to advance a substantive agenda to uplift middle class families. True!
Unfortunately, his speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition made clear that he doesn’t have one.
Here is the entire policy-focused section of his speech:
It is time for a new approach to taxes, to not only lower rates to spur economic opportunity, but to eliminate tax discrimination against parents and families.
It is time for a new approach to education, to break up the special-interest cartels that hold back our young children, and our young adults. Education is opportunity, and government has no business telling students where they can and can’t go to get it.
It is time for a new approach to transportation. New roads mean new neighborhoods, new communities, new jobs, new families, and new opportunities.
Yet today, infrastructure money states could be spending on those opportunities, Washington instead spends on bureaucratic waste and special-interest giveaways.
It is time to rethink a dysfunctional welfare system that holds poor families down. And to reform a corrupt corporate welfare system that props big businesses up.
Very little of this is new, and none of it directly addresses the key problems facing middle-class families today: The financial system is fragile and susceptible to depression-inducing crisis. Unemployment is persistently high. Wage growth has not kept pace with economic growth. Health care and higher education are increasingly unaffordable.
What is there in Lee’s plan for the middle class? His biggest idea is the end to “tax discrimination against parents and families.” This sounds like a nod toward proposals from Ramesh Ponnuru, Robert Stein and others for “pro-family” tax policies like much larger child tax credits.
Ponnuru and Stein recognise that bigger tax credits for families have a fiscal cost, and that prioritizing them means shifting focus away from cutting tax rates. But Lee makes this proposal in the same breath that he calls for lower tax rates. He’s not acknowledging the fiscal trade-off: if the GOP hopes to devote more fiscal resources to the middle class it will have to devote fewer to people with high incomes.
It also runs directly counter to Lee’s own tax plan, which would replace all federal taxes with a 25 per cent flat tax on consumed income. That would shift the tax burden dramatically away from wealthy families toward those with low- or middle-incomes.
On education, Lee is offering the same Republican hand-wave on education as ever: freer markets will fix the problem. On infrastructure, he is saying he is for good projects and against waste — like everybody else.
And on welfare, what does he mean when he says we must “rethink a dysfunctional welfare system”? Well, he has endorsed a Heritage Foundation plan that would cap most welfare spending at inflation-adjusted 2007 levels and then limit its growth to inflation (or, in the case of health spending, health inflation).
That would mean the government could not respond to increased needs during recessions; as rising unemployment made more families needy, Congress would be forced to find ways to cut back welfare programs. And it would mean that welfare spending would have to decline, over time, as a share of the economy.
The plan would also repeal Obamacare and Medicaid and replace them with a uniform, $2,000-per-person tax credit that would still leave health insurance out of reach for many people. (Poor families with children would be eligible for an enhanced benefit, but it would still leave gaps.)
“Reform” is one thing and there are very real poverty traps in the welfare system. But as is typical for Republicans, the key focus of legislation Lee supports isn’t reform — it’s cutting spending on entitlements in order to make space in the budget for tax cuts.
Lee understands the need to convince middle America that the conservative economic agenda is good for them. But it isn’t. The only way to make that sale is to change the agenda.
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