Little by little we can get there. Little by little we can get to a point where the federal government doesn’t control every aspect of our lives, but I need your help to do it. —Sen. Mike Lee
SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mike Lee told state lawmakers Wednesday that he's running several bills to keep the government from spying on Americans and to lift people out of poverty.
Underscoring the first-term Republican's remarks to the Utah House and Senate was his core belief that states should be empowered as the primary sources of law.
“Little by little we can get there. Little by little we can get to a point where the federal government doesn’t control every aspect of our lives, but I need your help to do it,” he said.
Lee said he and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are trying to undo a little-known but "disturbing" law that allows the government to read people's email without a search warrant after the messages are 180 days old.
"Sad but true, federal law does this currently," Lee said.
The junior senator also has a bill to restrict the National Security Agency from peering into people's lives through electronic monitoring.
"NSA is there for foreign intelligence surveillance, not to surveil American citizens without a court order," Lee said.
Speaking in the House and Senate, Lee said he is pushing a "conservative reform agenda" to help the nation's poor and middle class. The poor face immobility, while the middle class face insecurity.
Statistics for the first time show that people born in the bottom 20 percent economically have a 40 percent chance of staying there throughout their lives. Many are locked into "poverty traps," he said, due to government programs.
"This is tragic, and we've got to address this," Lee said.
But Bill Tibbits, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, said as someone who works at one Utah busiest food pantries, that he's skeptical that Lee's proposed Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act would help. The bill would add requirements to the food stamp program and caps welfare spending at 2007 levels.
The food stamps program already has work requirements and the spending cap ignores that the recession began in December of that year and that the job market has still not fully recovered, Tibbits said.
"Sen. Lee seems to be very interested in convincing people that he has changed and now has a new agenda but this is the exact type of bill he talked about as a candidate in 2010," he said.
Lee said middle-income Americans can't get ahead because taxes, inflation and government regulation eat up any raises or cost-of-living adjustments they might receive.
He said his bills would restore what he sees as the twin pillars of economic opportunity — institutions of voluntary civil society and the free marketplace.
"When we prop up and protect those two things, we find that economic opportunity abounds," Lee said.
Lee said he's proposing to reform the income tax code to create a two-rate system where most people would pay 15 percent.
The senator also said he wants to make higher education more affordable and improve the quality by enabling states to set their own accreditation programs. Currently, he said, that is decided by a "cartel" made up of the U.S. Department of Education, colleges, and university and accreditation entities.
Contributing: Madeleine Brown