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I'm privileged, I would say, today to have a discussion with Senator Mike Lee. He's been the U.S. Senator from Utah since 2010, chair of the Joint Economic Committee since January of 2019. I'm going to get you to tell us what that is and why it's important. Senator Lee graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in political science and gained his law degree from BYU's law school in 1997. He started his career as a clerk for the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah and then clerked for Justice Samuel Alito on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. He served Utah as Governor John Huntsman's general counsel and reunited with Justice Alito, who is now on the U.S. Supreme Court, for an additional one-year clerkship. He's written four books. I don't know how you find the time, quite frankly. The Freedom Agenda, arguing for a balanced budget amendment, Why John Roberts was Wrong About Healthcare, which was an e-book critiquing the Supreme Court's Obamacare ruling, Our Lost Constitution in 2015, and Written Out of History in 2017. He's been ranked by the New York Times using a nominate system developed by political scientists to assess political position on political spectrum, mostly left to right, as indexed by roll call voting behavior as the most conservative member of the Senate. I thought we could talk to Senator Lee today about, well, first of all, about civics, what was called civics at one point. I suppose that you might have been taught in high school if you were fortunate, about the structure and function of the U.S. government and about the day-to-day life of a senator and what that entails about the American Constitution in general and then about the issues that he sees as most pressing, currently confronting, well, the U.S. in particular, but also the world. So thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me today.
Understanding Government And Its Importance
Definition of the U.S. Federal Government (02:19)
Thank you, Jordan. It's really an honor to be with you. Yeah, well, we met, just so everybody knows, we met in Washington, that must be three years ago, I think it was in 2018. I was very fortunate to come down to Washington and meet a number of Republican senators and congressmen, Democrat senators and congressmen as well, trying to get people to talk across the aisle. And we'll talk about that a little bit too, about that possibility. So you're an expert on the U.S. Constitution from the legal perspective, and you have lots of practical political experience. And so maybe you could just start by talking to us about how you see the, how you understand the structure of the U.S. federal government. Thanks for asking that question, Jordan. This is something I feel strongly about. It's something that I think can help lead us to a place where as a country we can heal, where we can avoid some of the pitfalls that have proven problematic for us at times. The U.S. government is based on a document written in 1787 by a group of individuals who I believe were wise men raised up by God to that very purpose. Whether you believe in God or not, and regardless of what form of belief you might have, when you look at the U.S. Constitution, you can't help but see that it has been an essential part of a puzzle. It's sort of fostered the development of the greatest civilization that human history has ever known. It's done this, and not because the document itself has any magical powers or the words themselves do, but because the document itself recognizes that the sovereigns in our system are the people. The people have a right to be free, and that's something that's embodied in our Declaration of Independence written 11 years before the Constitution, which we acknowledged part of as a, probably as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment and how that spread on both sides of the Atlantic. That the power of government really derives from the people, and that ultimately our sovereign is God. On earth, sovereigns are citizens. Government is an earthly institution that operates by necessity in order to prevent us from harming each other and being harmed by others in order to protect life, liberty, and property.
Government as a necessary evil (04:52)
But ultimately, we realize that government is something of a necessary evil. Government is best understood, I believe, as the official collective use of force under the authority of a rule of general applicability that we call law. Force, properly understood, is something that, like anything else that we deal with in the world, that we find necessary, like oxygen, like water, like fire, for example, absolutely an essential part of life, certainly an essential part of any thriving civilization. But it's dangerous, just like each of those things, unless kept carefully in check. It will become dangerous because it's run by fallible, mortal human beings. That's essential to our understanding of the Constitution, is the fact that human beings have infinite and eternal value. They are flawed, but they're redeemable. And we've got to make sure that power checks power because government is force. So within our system of government, it sets up two really important structural protections to guarantee liberty. You see, liberty and government power exist somewhat in opposition to each other, and yet at the same time, they kind of hold each other in check. Government power, authority, force, if you will, cannot expand except at the expense of individual liberty. To a degree, we need this to make sure that we don't kill each other and hurt each other or take each other's things. But it's also got to be kept in check. At earlier times of human development, and in some parts of the world to this very day, government has best been understood as it being embodied, that government authority is embodied in a single sovereign, a monarch, a Caesar, a king, a queen. In our system of government, we recognize that immense danger exists in the concentration of power in the hands of the few.
The dangers of power concentration (06:49)
And so we split up the sovereign authority to make sure that it really belonged ultimately to the people. We split up government authority along two axes, first on the vertical axis with something we call federalism. It was embodied in the text of the original constitution and later emphasized in the 10th Amendment, adopted a few years later. But it says basically that most power in the United States of America will be exercised at the state and local level by the people. Now there's a principle, if I remember correctly, and I really like this principle. I believe it was developed in England, in Great Britain, but maybe it's part of the Scottish Enlightenment, that an issue should be dealt with by the most local authority capable of dealing with it. And so that's one way of deciding, of noting that authority has to be distributed across multiple levels, but also of determining who should be in charge. Yes, that's exactly right, Jordan. And in fact, we learned this as Americans, as part of our experience with colonial Britain. We were British subjects prior to our revolution. And over a couple of hundred years, we learned something that I think the English crown discovered somewhat by accident, which is that once you've established a community in the case of what became the United States, these 13 colonies, if you allow them to govern themselves locally on local matters, it actually works pretty well. And over the couple of hundred years leading up to our revolution, we would go for these cycles where the crown would exercise either more or less influence it tended to exercise more in the wake of wars that it had to pay for. It said more tax collectors, those tax collectors would impose more regulations. And then after a while they would withdraw. But we prospered as they sort of let go. So that's part of why we were instinctively drawn to what we today call federalism, or in other words, where we say, let's govern ourselves at the most local level possible. Just a few powers will exist at the national level. The federal government is supposed to be in charge of national defense, declaring war, regulating interstate and foreign trade, bankruptcy laws, immigration laws, postal roads. There are a few other powers, but you get the idea that's the basic gist of it. They're distinctively national in character, unavoidably national in their impact. All other things aside from that default proposition of where things are made federal are to be kept local. Local people have the advantage of being on the ground and being able to see exactly what's going on. And higher orders officials, let's say, have the advantage of being able to aggregate large numbers of people to do the same thing at the same time. But there's a tension between those two things. And so you could think that there's a level of responsibility for the individual and for the family and then for the local community and the state and the federal government and then, hypothetically, international organizations as well. But you want the least amount of power possible moving up. Precisely. Precisely.
It's a very good principle, I think. You made a case for force. Two things that I think will strike some listeners or watchers, make them curious. You made a case for force, and you also made a case for the embeddedness of the constitutional system inside a religious structure and associated that with sovereignty. And I mean, sovereignty historically, especially if you go back into the deep past, has been associated, let's say, with the divine right of kings or emperors. There's always been an association between political sovereignty and something like divinity. And that connection, although church and state are separate, isn't severed entirely in the United States. That's the case you're making. And I think it's a general case that that connection still exists and necessarily exists. So let's look at those two things. You talked about the government in relationship to force. And why start there?
Government is force (11:24)
That's what government is. Government is force. The only reason we have government is force. When bad things happen, ironically, violence can ensue when people start to think of it as more than force. If they look at government as the arbiter of all that is right and all that is wrong, of all that is fair or unfair, expectations change. And all of a sudden, force can be brought to bear where it ought not tread under the banner of government. Force is there to make sure that we don't hurt each other or take each other's things, to make sure that we are protected from those on the outside of our country who seek to harm us and those who are within it, who would destroy us and our rights. So I think these problems become more pronounced when we lose sight of what government is. We develop an almost reverence. It's almost like it's become the new idolatry. We worship government. That's why I wanted to concentrate on your discussion of force. So what I understand from that is that I have a domain of rights, and you have a domain of rights, and we're going to bump into each other. There's going to be conflict at the place we touch where our rights might conflict. And what that'll mean is that there's the possibility of conflict breaking out there. And that might mean that I'm going to use force on you or you use force on me. Now, we could cede the right to that force to a third party, to another authority. And that takes away the necessity for us to use force. So for example, I remember years ago, I can't remember, he was the governor of Massachusetts. He ran for president. He was asked at one point about an escapee from a prison who... Michael Dukakis.
Lu's observation about religion and necessity of belief (13:17)
That's right. That's right. Who was then raped someone. And Dukakis was asked about his personal response to that, how he would have responded if that had been someone he cared for, who was attacked, for example. And his response wasn't... He didn't allow himself to... What would you say? To have the kind of anger that you would have if that sort of thing happened. And then say, "Look, of course, I would be put in a murderous rage as a consequence of that occurrence. But I've ceded that power to the government because it's too dangerous for individuals to have to seek retribution and retaliation on their own." If that was always the case, we'd have nothing but a constant state of warfare between individuals. And so we cede that power. And that has something to do with the government's monopoly on force, at least under some circumstances. And so... Yes. That's a much... Well, it's a much different viewpoint than thinking about the government as something that's the benevolent provider of good, just for example. Right. Right. Exactly. And, Dr. Peterson, that is not to say the government isn't capable of good things and that government doesn't do good things that don't directly involve force. It is, however, important to remember that that's ultimately what government is, is force. The way government does things, the way it does anything everywhere, at least in our country, is that it collects taxes from the people. We have a number of different kinds of taxes in this country, as they do in many countries. But ultimately, that's how government operates. And while we call that a voluntary system, and in many ways it is or is supposed to be, ultimately, we pay those... Citizens pay those because they know that if they don't pay them, force will be brought to bear. People will come and there will be penalties attached to it if they don't pay them. That's why it's so important to remember that government is force. It uses force to do things that we need it to do. And as you say, it would be chaos. It would also be terribly inefficient. It would result in all kinds of problems. If every one of us had to be our own sheriff, our own Department of Defense, our own army, and our own Navy, that would be problematic. Just the same, having delegated those things to a government, we have to remember what government is, why we have it, and utilize government for that which only government can do, and not attribute to it benevolence and omniscience and an omnipotence that most people reserve for deity, if they believe in God. I want to get back to another point you made a moment ago about the role of religion. I'd recharacterize one of your observations about my comments there. I don't believe that the Constitution requires in order for it to work for anyone to cling to any particular religious belief, or for that matter, to any religious belief at all. In fact, by its own terms, it carves those things out and makes clear that government can't mess with those, but government also may not establish those things. It's important to have that boundary. Now, I think what you're referring to there is my comment about the fact that it helps to understand these things, if as was the case in America at the time of America's founding, and as I believe is still the case with most Americans, when we understand that we are subject to an all-knowing, benevolence, and all-powerful creator to whom we will stand accountable at the end of this life. And when we understand that our rights and our existence come from him and are a result of a bestowal of his blessings rather than that of any government, I think that helps inform the proper role of government and the proper relationship between the people and its government. There seems to be a supposition in the Declaration of Independence that there's a relationship between rights and divinity. And I think you can think about that conceptually rather than purely religiously, although you can think about it both ways, is that there's a hypothesis that there's something transcendent about each individual that isn't subject to earthly definition, let's say, that always escapes definition. That's what makes it transcendent. There's a transcendent value in each individual, and the best way that we can describe that is in religious terms.
The Declaration of Independence: prescriptive and suppositional (17:54)
In fact, when we start describing it, the description becomes religious. And so we use language like the soul, and we think of our rights as something that are intrinsic to us and of the highest possible value. And that is an assumption that has to be made before the Declaration of Independence can even get off the ground. That's why the people who crafted that document said that they held those truths to be self-evident. It's an a priori presupposition that there's something transcendent about each individual, and that's where sovereignty is placed. When I've done my attempts at historical analysis in monarchical systems, there's a relationship posited between the monarch and divinity, and the monarch is sovereign because of that relationship with divinity. And it's a complete transformation of the view of humanity that occurred over thousands and thousands of years, and certainly manifested itself in the American system, that that sovereignty is actually something that is inherent in each individual, not just the aristocracy or the monarchy, or not just any single group of individuals, aristocrats or any specific group, but in each individual. And so... That's exactly right. And were we not the offspring of God created in his image, it would probably be harder to recognize that and to accept that as a priori's supposition, because the inherent worth and the infinite value of each and every human soul is part and parcel of this concept of liberty. Now, I want to be very clear. I know a lot of people who don't share my religious beliefs, who share another, and a lot of other people who don't have any religious belief at all and don't believe in God. They too, all of them, are capable and are rendered no less capable of living in freedom than I am. Just the same, one cannot mistake the significant influence of a religious belief system like that that most Americans share about the existence of a God and the existence of a Redeemer. The other thing that I think is important about that, conceptually again, and the reason I insist upon the conceptual level, is because of the dangers of associating this with any particular religious viewpoint, or even with a religious viewpoint at all for that matter, because as you said, the constitution works just as well for atheists, or it's just as applicable. There is some real utility, I think, in positing that ultimate knowledge lies beyond you.
Where alchemical skepticism leads (20:50)
You know, and if you look at, if you're a totalitarian, let's say you're an atheistic totalitarian, which, and those things don't always go hand in hand, but generally they do, there isn't anything even hypothetically beyond your system of knowledge. But if you're a believer, if you're someone with faith, then you're forced into a position where you always have to admit your fundamental ignorance because you don't have the answers at hand. That's reserved for something that's beyond you, or something that's beyond. And so I've often thought that there's a real useful humility that's part and parcel of belief in something that's transcendent, because you leave what's omniscient well outside of you, and you understand that that's something that you always approach but never can possibly attain, and that all your systems are partial and incomplete at best. And that seems to me to be a necessary antidote to a potentially dangerous totalitarianism or narcissism. So I think it's so wise that the system is set up that way. I mean, it puts attention in it because there is this nesting of the political system inside a set of religious suppositions, but then there's also this insistence of the separation between church and state. So that's a strange tension, and it's a tough one to sort through. But... No, that's right. And it can seem contradictory. It can seem like it's in conflict. I think once you unpack what government is and how it's used, and you understand human beings and their relationship to each other and to their government, it becomes easier to see how this can work and how it must work. In other words, for me at least, my belief in my relationship with God is the most important thing in this world to me. It's right there with my relationship with my wife and my children. It's something without which I cannot imagine my existence. And it is for that reason and not in spite of it that I don't want government touching it. In other words, there is an increasing inclination in society today, including among many Americans, that if something is really important, then it must be something that the government does, promotes, funds, or is otherwise officially involved in.
Government funded is important. (23:43)
And I think this is a helpful example to all of us of the reasons why it ought to stay out. It is because it's important that it must not touch it. It's not an appropriate place for the use of force. There's a good reason why people have for many, many centuries sought sanctuary in places of worship. People instinctively recognize that force, the use of physically coercive force is not something we want to take place inside of a church or a synagogue or another place of worship. And so too with many aspects of our lives that are important, because they are important, you don't necessarily want government in charge of it. So it brings up a really complicated question, which is how do you determine... so how do you... government can become dangerous because of its monopoly on force and its potentially expansive reach. But there's many complex problems that need to be solved and and hopefully people of goodwill can work together to solve them. You're faced then with the necessity of a constant discussion about what government could and couldn't do.
Constraints, a timely conversation. (25:12)
And it seems to me that that discussion should be informed by realization that government does some things that are necessary, but that like any other powerful entity, it needs to face constraints. Part of the political debate is constantly about what that domain of action should be and what those constraints should be. And I suppose the Conservatives are constantly on the side of pushing for constraint, at least in some domains, on government expansion. There's exceptions to that. And whereas the people on the left end of the spectrum are more convinced that, you know, the power for government to do good is so great that its power should be expanded outward. That's right. And it's an important discussion to have. And you've got Conservatives and you've got Liberals, you've got Libertarians who, you know, I consider myself a Conservative with libertarian leanings. In any event, regardless of where you categorize yourself, it's important to recognize what government is, what it's not, what its power is, and which level of government ought to be operating for a particular issue, and which person or office within which level of government is appropriate.
Vertical and horizontal protection. (26:28)
So a minute ago, we talked about the federalism, the vertical separation of powers, leaving a fairly stable pyramid-like structure. A few powers at the top, most powers at the base, close to the people. Most people know their state legislature, their city council members. They interact with them at the grocery store. They might recognize them at their child's baseball game.
Three branches of government making laws. (27:04)
Fewer people know their federal legislators. It's part of the reason why we have fewer powers and trust at the top. There's also a horizontal protection in the Constitution, one that says, once you're inside the federal government, dealing with something that's a federal issue, you know, war powers, regulating trade or international trade or commerce and so forth. We're going to have three distinct branches. We further subdivided the king or the Caesar, the king or the queen, the monarch there into three distinct parts. We've got one branch of government, the legislative branch, Congress, where I work, that makes the laws. This was designed as the most dangerous branch. That's why it's made the most accountable to the people at the most regular intervals, because we have the power to prescribe the rules by which the rest of government operates. That's the legislative branch. The executive branch, headed by the president in our system, has the power to execute, implement, and enforce the laws passed by Congress. Then you've got the judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, that has the power to interpret the laws and disputes about the laws, where they come into conflict between two or more parties properly before the jurisdiction of the courts. When each of those branches stays in its lane, the legislative power remains the most dangerous branch, but it is made less dangerous by the fact that it's the most accountable to the people at the most regular intervals. So insofar as we follow those guidelines, the vertical protection of federalism, the horizontal protection of separation of powers, this document really has helped us and it's helped us prosper. It's led more people out of poverty than any government program ever could or ever will, because it unlocks unlimited human potential by restraining government. Over the last 80 years or so, we've seen a system by which, unfortunately, under the leadership of White Houses, Senates, and Houses of Representatives of every conceivable partisan combination, we've seen a shift in power. We've distorted the vertical protection of federalism by pushing power that belongs to the states up to the federal government. Then once it's inside the federal government, you've seen Congress responding to that in a panic, trying to shield individual members from political accountability that comes from all this power. They shifted out to the other branches, primarily the executive branch, by delegating it out. Okay, so that's a really interesting argument. I haven't heard that before.
Power Dynamics Within Government
The executive branch. (29:29)
My understanding of what you're stating is, as increasing power has been abdicated, let's say, to the federal level or taken by the federal level, ill-advisedly, the weight on the individual legislators, the moral weight, has become too intense and they're abdicating their legislative responsibility. That means that it's handed over to the executive. It's confusing for a Canadian. Well, our system is confusing for a Canadian, but your system is even more confusing for a Canadian. The legislative branch in the US drafts the laws, but the president appears, and this is over many administrations, to be using more executive orders. This is a reflection of what you just described. Is that the case as far as you're concerned? Yes, that is exactly what I'm saying. That is the culmination of what we do when we ignore federalism by pushing too much power to the federal government. Okay, so let me ask you how you came to this conclusion, because it's a subtle argument. So I want to walk through it again. You're basically hypothesizing that at some point the weight of responsibility becomes too much for any single individual in a position of power to bear. So they'll look for avenues of escape. They can't bear it maybe because it's too complex. They can't keep up. They can't bear it because people are after them for making decisions. There's all sorts of reasons. They might be intimidated by the magnitude of their decisions, all of that. So if you dump too much on them, then they shy away from it. Then it defaults over to the executives. Do you have examples at hand of that happening? What sort of powers have been taken away at the state level or abdicated, where the states have abdicated the responsibility and moved towards the federal? And any idea why that's happening? Yeah, great question. The best single example that I can think of lies with what we call the Commerce Clause, Clause 3 of Article 1, Section 8.
Congress accumulates more power with every passing year. (31:20)
Article 1, Section 8 is the part of the Constitution that outlines the powers of Congress, and with it basically the powers of the federal government. The Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate trade or commerce between the states with four nations and with the Indian tribes. Over the first 150 years or so of our republic, this was understood and exercised as a power to regulate interstate commercial transactions, for example, making sure that Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania weren't engaging in trade wars against each other, to make clear that the federal sovereign would be in charge of interstate commercial transactions, interstate waterways, roadways, things like that. And then we had a shift. And that would be because no single state obviously could do that because it involves more than one state. So the federal level is the logical level for that power to reside. Correct, correct. And in that respect, we were trying to set up a single common market to make sure that we weren't operating as 13 independent republics who would engage in trade wars against each other. All this started to change during the Great Depression, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal era. Initially, there was some resistance by the Supreme Court, but all of this changed. Our reading, our official interpretation of the Commerce Clause, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3, changed on one day in America. It's very seldom recognized in a Supreme Court decision that very few Americans even know anything about. It's called NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Company. It was decided on April 12, 1937. In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress's power to regulate trade or commerce between the states with foreign nations and with Indian tribes not only meant interstate commercial transactions and the regulation of interstate corridors of trade and things like that, but it also extended to the power to regulate any activity that is commercial in nature and that when replicated across every state, while local and intrastate by nature, has in the aggregate a substantial economic impact, such that something as local, as trade and labor laws or agricultural production, things like agriculture, labor, mining, and things like this that are economic but occur in one state, had always been the bread and butter of something that if regulated by government would be regulated by state authority and not federal. In that case, on that one day, April 12, 1937, the Supreme Court said, "No, it's anything that's economic and has a substantial effect." Ever since then, Congress has enacted law after law, federalizing all these issues, labor, manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and so forth. The Supreme Court has left basically a perpetually green light since that date. Since April 12, 1937, we've really had only three instances in which the Supreme Court has identified any act of Congress as outside Congress's legislative authority to regulate interstate and foreign trade. Basically, all three of them, two of those three were sort of drafting errors. The Supreme Court explained to Congress how it could remedy, and on the third one, Congress went ahead and papered over the problem by validating the act of Congress in question as legitimate under a separate provision of the Constitution. So as a result of this, Congress has now got all this power. Congress then delegates that to the executive branch, passing laws that sound less and less like laws over time and more and more like platitudes. Can you give us any concrete examples of that? Yeah. So, okay, let's take a good example. Let's say trade laws pass something regulating minimum wage, prescribing a nationwide minimum wage. Okay, that seems like a main issue at the moment. That is economic in nature. It has a substantial effect on interstate commerce when aggregated across every state. Insofar as we just set the minimum wage, that is not violating the horizontal protection of separation of powers, if we set it. If, however, we were to delegate to the Secretary of Labor or the President of the United States or somewhat other executive branch official, the power to prescribe rules making sure that the minimum wage was set fairly, that would be an unacceptable delegation of that legislative power over to the executive branch. Now, we haven't done that with the minimum wage. It's still an improper exercise of federal power in my view, but at least we haven't exercised that there. In other areas, let's take, for example, clean air. Clean air is something over which we have a basis for authority because if you've got a factory or a mobile source of pollution in one state, it can emit things that can move into another state and cause problems downwind. But we've delegated a lot of what power we do have in the federal government to executive branch agencies.
The Clean Air Act, I hereby declare that we shall have clear air- and then created the (36:57)
We've got something, for example, called the Clean Air Act. Now, a lot of good has been done through the Clean Air Act. We've significantly abated things like acid rain problems, other air pollutants that have caused a lot of problems for people. The Clean Air Act is a slight oversimplification, but as I explained in our last constitution, it's a little bit like we said, we shall have clean air.
EPA and gave them the power to set their own emission limits. (37:10)
We hereby declare that we shall have clean air, and we hereby delegate to the EPA, the executive branch agency in charge of administering that law, the power to define what air pollution means, what are acceptable limits on particular air pollutants, then to prescribe penalties for those who exceed those limits and the power to enforce those same penalties, all vested in one executive branch agency. That might be good for politicians, because it allows them to say, "I like clean air." But if the EPA then charged with that, does things that in some circumstances make no sense, like for example, when they set the minimum ozone levels at a level below where Mother Nature herself has set them, as has happened in some parts of the country, people become outraged. They complain to Congress. Members of Congress beat their chests and say, "Those barbarians at EPA, I'm going to write them a strongly worded letter," as if that were our job as lawmakers to write a strongly worded letter. But in reality, all we've done is pass the buck to the EPA. We've done the same thing with EPA, as we have with occupational safety and health requirements, with OSHA, MSHA, the mine safety and health administration, alphabet soup agency after alphabet soup agency throughout the federal government has lawmaking power. That's inappropriate. - Sorry, I should remind everybody that there's a bit of a lag in this conversation because of the technology. So we might interrupt each other and appear rude, but the lag has something to do with that. And maybe me being rude also has something to do with it. But there's all this talk about the deep state. And I'm just thinking that some of that could well be generated as a consequence of what you're describing. As more and more decisions are delegated or relegated more accurately to entities that aren't accountable in the same way, then it would seem logical that an extra governmental government, so to speak, emerges. I mean, the same thing happens in a country like Canada where the civil service becomes more and more powerful across time because responsibility is relegated to it by legislators that aren't willing or can't maintain their responsibility.
The student loan crisis (39:26)
Or it's passed on to the court to make decisions, to make law de facto, because the legislators won't take the initiative to do so. They can put it off. So what kind of reception does this kind of argument get among your peers and among your political opponents? - It's interesting, Dr. Peterson. Most of my colleagues in the Senate and our counterparts in the House would, I suppose, if they were part of this conversation today, say that they don't necessarily disagree with the fact that we've moved power from states and localities to Washington, and then within Washington we've given power away from the people's elected lawmakers who have voluntarily delegated that power over to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, and in many cases, the President of the United States. Many of them, perhaps most of them, would agree that to a degree that has happened. What they would say next would depend in part on their political persuasion. Some of them would say, yeah, that's true, but it doesn't matter because this is a good thing, and we really benefit from the specialized expertise of those who occupy these executive branch agencies. And I want to make very clear, I've got nothing but respect for those individuals. They're by and large well-educated, hardworking, well-intentioned people with a high degree of specialization. My point is not that we can't learn from them. My point is that they're not lawmakers. They don't stand accountable to the people in regular elections or elections ever. - Yeah, well, you said, for example, you said that the EPA had many positive effects. You seem also still worried about it. And so I might object, well, if it's had those positive effects, then what's the problem? Why worry about it? And so I would like to know that. Why is that a problem? - Because our government needs to be ours. And that means that the laws, a law consists of a set of words that prescribe a rule, a rule of general applicability, imposing affirmative obligations on members of the public. When a law thus understood is prescribed in our system of government by the federal government, at the federal level, you have to follow a formula for it to be legitimate. And that's true for not just the philosophical constitutional reason, but also for the practical reason that you don't want the lawmaking power, which is the most dangerous of the powers of government, to be ever in the hands of people you can't fire. They work for you. And if you can't fire the people who make these laws as well-educated and well-intentioned as they might be, you got a problem. - So you see something like a drift over time so that the legislative power drifts out of the bodies that are supposed to be exercising it into other specialized areas. And that escapes, that escapes, that has the risk of escaping public accountability. So I guess what you might argue then is that the EPA and legislation like it produces some short, medium-term positive outcomes, but it has this long-term potential payment lurking in the background. And we always have to keep an eye on that. So, but I mean, what do you do about that in this situation though? Because the power has been ceded to the federal government and it looks like the legislators can't keep up. So what's the solution or what are the steps towards the solution? - The easiest way that I can answer that question, because it took us 80 plus years to get here, 82, 83 years from the date I identified to get here. The solution to that is going to take some time. It's not simple, but the concept is pretty easy. I think the important first step is to enact reforms, including those that are embodied in a proposal called the REINS Act dealing with regulatory policy, another similar one that I've introduced called the Global Trade Accountability Act, where you identify policies that have been handed over to the executive branch and you say, "Insofar as we're dealing with the prescription, the prescribing of laws, the making of laws from within the executive branch, we're going to treat those as legislative proposals that will then themselves become subject to the formula ordained by the constitution, specifically article one, section seven of the constitution, which says that to make a federal law, you have to have passage of the same set of words, the same bill, legislative proposal within the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Same bill has got to pass. Then you have to present it to the president for signature or veto. - So you want to identify laws that have already been passed that haven't undergone this process and bring them back into the house, so to speak. And that document you're holding up, that particular book, what is that? - Oh, I'm sorry. This is the US Constitution. I carry this around with me. It's pretty simple. It's only 4,553 words long, but it's still very easy to understand. And even though I've spent a lifetime studying it and defending it, and I focus on it constantly in the Senate, I keep the document with me because, notwithstanding the fact that I'm very familiar with it and happened for a long time, I find that by having it with me, I make sure that I can check what the wording says. You'd be surprised at how often it comes in handy. - I have a question for you about that too. How do you check yourself against the standard human propensity to have an opinion and then to justify it by hypothetical recourse to first principles? You know what I mean, is you're a constitutional expert, and so you've got this whole body of argumentation at hand. And that would make whatever elements of you that might tend towards corruption quite dangerous because you can justify that with the knowledge, I mean, and everyone tends towards corruption to some degree. So when you have that kind of specialized knowledge, then you have to ensure that the parts of you that might not be so aligned with the light, let's say, don't use their knowledge in a negative way. I mean, scientists do that by trying to falsify their hypothesis and then having other scientists critique their work. But as a constitutional expert, I mean, I know you're accountable to the people, so that's a huge part of this, but do you have any other techniques that you use to ensure that your conscience is clean in relationship to your relationship with the constitution? - Yeah, yeah, I do. And that connects to something you mentioned a minute ago, is referred to me as an expert of the constitution. I don't call myself an expert on the constitution. I don't consider myself that.
Accountability: Government vs. the people (47:00)
I consider myself a guy who has a copy of the constitution with him at all times and who reads it regularly. That's what we need. We need fewer experts and more people who just read it and develop an opinion on what it says and how best to implement. - Why did you fall in love with it in that way? I mean, it's really quite something, actually, that you carry it around. I mean, and to me, that seems like a good thing. I mean, if you don't mind me saying so, you know, you're carrying around something that you want to be accountable to. And that's a big decision. How did you come to do that? I don't imagine that when you were 18, you were carrying around a copy of the constitution. - Well, not always. It started for me at a young age. The constitution was something that was important to my parents. My mother was a school teacher who went on to have seven children. And my father was a lawyer and a professor of law, later served as dean of Brigham and University's law school and as president of Brigham and University. For a few years when I was a child, he was Ronald Reagan's solicitor general. A solicitor general in our system is the government's chief advocate before the Supreme Court for the administration in question. So he devoted his life and his career. It died 25 years ago. But during his 61 years on this planet, he devoted much of his career to the constitution. It's something that we talked about around the dinner table and something that he always taught me was my responsibility to defend. I've also come to believe since his passing, he died while I was in law school, that the constitution has never been more important than it is right now. Because it's the one thing that I think can lower the emotional temperature in this country. It's risen to an almost fever pitch level in part because we've misused government.
Interpreting The Constitution And Power Misuse
Just read the Constitution (49:03)
We've mischaracterized what government's even capable of and we've created unreasonable expectations. The constitution's whole point is to limit and restrain government power because we understand that it's dangerous. And one of the things that's great about this is that it's politically agnostic. It's politically neutral. It doesn't require everyone to be a liberal or a conservative. It simply says, look, here's how we're going to make decisions. Here's where decisions are going to be made. For example, I sometimes cite the example that people in Vermont, a majority of the people in Vermont I'm told, would much prefer to have a single-payer government-run, government-funded healthcare system, perhaps sort of like what you've got in Canada. People in Utah would not want that. One of many reasons why I'm not likely ever to live in Vermont, but let's let Vermont be Vermont. Let's let Utah be Utah. Vermont could actually go in that direction much more easily, more quickly, more cost-efficiently, more completely if we allowed them to do it on their own than if we were trying to federalize everything which we have. Well, you'd also get the advantage of running the experiment. I mean, that's certainly one advantage of a multi-state system with some autonomy at the state level is you can run multiple experiments and see which one works. That's much better than legislation by fiat from the top because you're likely to be wrong no matter what your political persuasion when you're trying to solve a complex problem.
Laboratories of Republican Democracy (50:22)
Well, that's exactly right. And in fact, our founding fathers thought of the states as laboratories of republican democracy, places where people could experiment with what worked and what didn't work. States could learn from one another, follow each other, not by coercion, not by coercive force, but by choice. As people voted with their feet or with their ballot, they could see what was appealing to people and what wasn't. So that's a really good argument for decentralization, even from a leftist perspective, because you could say, well, look, if you want government to do good, then you want to put as much power as possible, as low as possible, so that you could run as many experiments as possible, so that government could in fact do the best possible job. Whereas if you aggregate power at the top, you can make sweeping declarations, but the magnitude of your error is going to increase as a consequence. And that's a terrible thing because you can be really wrong. Yes, yes, you can be really wrong. But if you split out the authority, the authority becomes less concentrated and less lethal. Speaking of lethality, this can manifest itself even within the areas.
Pattern for misuse (51:46)
The problems I've identified manifest themselves sometimes even within those areas where the federal government is clearly in charge. And the problem that we've had is once we've seen this seepage that happens with the legislative branch delegating out its power in other areas where it's exercising power that probably shouldn't be federal in the first place, by habit, like a dog to its vomit, it continues the ritual. And it does so even in areas like the War Power. Federalist number 69, Alexander Hamilton explains that one of the key features of our system that differentiated it from the British system that we had left was the power to declare a war. You see that the English monarch had the power to take the country to war. It was parliament's job to then figure out how to pay for it and support it. Hamilton explained we deliberately didn't do that here. We wanted the power to declare war only in Congress. Over time, we've gradually ceded even that power to the executive. Speaking of Vermont, that's where my friend Bernie Sanders and I, probably absolute opposite ends of the political spectrum within the Senate. There are a number of areas where we agree. This is one of them. We are really upset about the fact that the War Power has been bastardized. It's been commandeered by the executive branch with the acquiescence, and in many cases, the blessing of the legislative branch. And he and I have been fighting for years to get us out of an undeclared, unconstitutional, ridiculous civil war in Yemen, in which the American people have no business. Fortunately, President Biden's going to get us out of it.
Four branches of government, the UK monarchy (53:24)
It's become slippery to define war. You know, it seemed to be more obvious when it was one set of uniformed men against another, and two sovereign states. And so part of that slippage seems to be a definitional matter. But I suspect as well, given your arguments, or at least along the same line, that it's somewhat of a relief for the legislators not to have to bear that responsibility. Yes. And I think you're right. I think some of that has changed a little bit, as times have changed. It's one thing to just declare war against France, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, whatever country might have been named in centuries past, than it is to make a broader declaration of our region or against the philosophy today. But then again, then as now, one could propose that Congress declare war on bad people. Now, it would be a terrible idea. I wouldn't vote for that. But at least you'd be subjecting it to the political process. There would be some political penalty for anyone crazy enough to vote for a war against all bad people. Why? Well, because that concentrates discretionary power, immense discretionary power. Ultimately, in one person, the President of the United States, that's a bad thing. And we ought to get away with that. But all these features, Jordan, have crept up to the point that we have glamorized and we have imperialized the American presidency. Oh, I have a question about that, too. I have a question about that. This is particularly something interesting from a Canadian perspective. Because I've often thought that there are properly four branches of government, legislative, judicial, executive, and symbolic. And the advantage to the British monarchy is that they extracted out the symbolic and they placed it on a monarch. And so there's a pronounced tendency in people to admire leaders and to project something like divinity onto them. And from the outside in the US, I see the constant transformation of the American president and the American "first family" into a monarchy. It was quite stunning to me, for example, when I moved to the United States in 1993 to see the sort of power that Hillary Clinton wielded as the wife of the president. That would never occur in Canada under our system. That would be essentially impossible. But I thought that that was part of the consequence of the executive having to bear the burden of this symbolic that should probably be be parsed out into the symbolic. Because then the queen and the king can be the object of admiration and the royal family can play that role for people who want that. But then the executive is free from that, at least to some degree. So I mean, I'm not proposing that you establish a monarchy, but it does seem to be something that's like twist. And you see that also in the establishment of these familial political dynasties.
Incel tribalism, too much power (56:35)
That's that tilt back towards a monarchical form of government that seems quite unfortunate, I would say. Dangerous. That is an interesting observation. I'd never thought of it quite like that. It is true that under our system of government, the president is the head of state. In addition to being the commander in chief of the armed forces and the chief executive officer of the executive branch. He's also the head of state. It's a gamble that our risk or a decision that we made consciously as Americans. And I think it's a very manageable risk, especially if you follow the rest of the rule book. Keeping in mind that no president may serve more than eight years as president. So that's the maximum time they're going to have. In some cases, it's only going to be four. And if we properly managed our government, meaning if we kept the proper decisions at the proper level and in the proper branch, the president of the United States would still be significant. But the presidency would be far less emotionally charged than it has become. It's become bubbling over. It's become the seething hotbed of incipient tribalism. It's really a scary thing. We see this in both parties. You see that as a symptom of the movement towards excessive executive power. And so you could think about that as a principle. If the office of the presidency, as it becomes increasingly too hot to handle, that's an indication that too much power has been placed on the president, placed at the president's feet. Well, that's an interesting hypothesis, I think. It's both an indication of that and it's also, in my view, the foreseeable and absolutely inevitable result of doing that. This is just what happens when you do that. We have created this by allowing for the secretion of power. Remember, earlier in the conversation, we talked about the unique relationship between force, the use of government for force, and liberty. You can't really expand or contract either one without affecting the other one. But as we push this power upward within the federal system to the federal government and then over to the chief executive, to the president, that power comes from somewhere. It goes somewhere. Ultimately, that power comes from the people and accrues within the executive branch of the federal government. That's what makes it so darn contentious because he's not only the head of state and the commander-in-chief, he's now in many ways not just the law enforcer, but also the law giver, the lawmaker. That's dangerous. Okay, so let me pull two things together here. So, you've alluded during this conversation, and I have too, to the increasing political tension in the United States. How would you characterize that tension? What do you think is happening? What evidence do you have for that? That would be a good start. I know it seems like things are hot. I don't know if they're hotter than they were under Nixon. I don't know if they're hotter than they were during the Vietnam War. I can't tell, but they're hot enough. But what's going on in your view? It's hard for me to compare apples to apples then versus now. I was a young child when President Nixon left office and when he was working to get us out of Vietnam. I wasn't serving in the Senate or as a four-year-old, I wasn't terribly aware of all public affairs. But I have sensed just from my reading of the history and from my own anecdotal accounts of what I've experienced in the last 10 years in the United States Senate, I've sensed the emotional tension continuing to go up. There are some objective measures that I think could help quantify this. I'm not an expert in those, but if you look, for example, over this 80-85 year period that I've been referencing since the New Deal era, prior to the New Deal era in peacetime, the combined expenditures of all of the states in America were always greater during peacetime than the expenditures of the federal government. Since the New Deal era, the opposite has always been true. It's always been the federal government spending more than all 50 states combined. It was never intended to be that way. Is that gap growing? Has it grown across that period? I haven't checked it in the last few years, but generally, yes. In particular, Dr. Peterson, the share of our economy that consists of government spending has itself expanded rather dramatically. Most of the increase has been federal, but state expenditures and federal expenditures combined have as a share of GDP in America grown significantly since then. With it, the emotional temperature has gone up. With it also, you've seen the federal government and the federal bureaucracy in particular playing a more heavy-handed and more ominous looming role. For example, 25 years ago when I was in law school, first time I ever started thinking about this executive branch agency lawmaking problem, we had a guest speaker come to the law school. He explained that compliance with federal regulations, those prescribed by the alphabet soup agencies in the federal government we were talking about earlier, were really a backdoor invisible tax on America's poor middle class because Americans pay through the nose for those things to the tune of, about $300 billion a year.
Expenses from federal regulations (01:02:32)
He said, but they don't see the price tag for that. That's what makes them devious and hidden and manipulative is that they pay for them, but with higher prices on goods, higher prices on services, diminished wages, unemployment and underemployment. That's how they pay for those things because everything becomes more expensive and that ends up being kind of a backdoor invisible, highly regressive tax on America's poor middle class. Since then, in the 20s- It becomes more expensive because of cost of adhering to the increasingly complex regulatory environment? Is that the- Yes, yes. This Byzantine labyrinth of federal regulations. Like the month you spend doing your income tax? Yes, yes. One of many examples. It's now estimated that while it was estimated around $300 billion by our guest speaker 25 years ago, they say that that same cost is now somewhere in the range of $2 trillion a year. This is immense. It's a massive expense to the American people and that disproportionately affects America's poor middle class. Just for comparison purposes, the total budget is what's the magnitude of the total budget now? Okay. COVID is something of an exception, but we're trending toward annual federal outlays in the range of about $4 trillion. We've exploded that with COVID, spending several trillion dollars more than that over the last year. We hope that's temporary. We know that it tends not to be completely temporary when the minute you ratchet up spending, it's something of a one-way ratchet. I also measure some of this in unconventional ways. Do you think that's a reasonable estimate? The excess cost of regulatory adherence is half the budget? Is equivalent to half the budget? Yes, yes. There are lots of estimates out there. Some say that $2 trillion, it doesn't really measure the whole of it. There are others who say that it's somewhere in that range. Others who might try to argue it's a little bit lower, but there are some who say that the true cost is even higher than that. But yeah, I think that's an accurate measure. Another somewhat imprecise but interesting metric that I use in my office in Washington, I'm trying to remember whether I showed you this while you were visiting. If not, I'll show you next time you're there. I keep two stacks of documents behind my desk. One document is a few inches tall. It's usually either a few hundred, sometimes a few thousand pages long. It consists of the laws passed by Congress in the previous year. The other stack is in some years 13, 14 feet tall. I keep it in three separate cases, bookcases in my office. It's sometimes as much as 100,000 pages long. It's last year's federal register. The federal register is the annual cumulative index of federal regulations. As they're released initially for notice and comment and then later as they become effective. Well, so that's a very interesting metric too. So that's ratio of paper necessary to document regulatory change. Yes, it is prescribing affirmative legal obligation. Of the relative power of the two institutions, so to speak. Yes, in a sense. Now it's not a precise measure because some of that is not an apples to apples comparison, but a lot of it really consists of lawmaking.
Trust In People And Power Trade-Offs
We dont trust the government itself, we trust people (01:06:20)
These are new affirmative legal obligations imposed as a generally applicable rule on the American people enforceable by the overpowering force that is the federal government. The difference between those two stacks is that the small stack, one that's only a few hundred to a few thousand pages long, made by elected lawmakers. One that's 13, 14 feet tall, 100,000 pages long in some years. Made entirely by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. That's scary. Yeah, well it should be something that sets, again, people across the political spectrum back on their heels because if government wastes its time doing things that aren't necessary, it's not going to be able to spend its time doing things that are necessary. Prioritization is a massive problem, right? There's only so many things you can attend to at the same time. So, you know, in any country where there is a societal tendency to trust the people and be skeptical of government, we call that liberty. In a society where people are encouraged to trust the government and be skeptical of the people, we call that tyranny. But it's interesting, though, you know, because you do trust the government in a really deep sense. You carry the constitution around. And so the reason I'm pointing this out is because I just read something a while back about the degree to which young people distrust institutions. And I've found my trust in institutions decreasing as well over the last years, especially media institutions. And I'm not pleased by that in the least. But you do definitely have faith in the constitution. So when you say to be skeptical of government, you mean specifically something like the tendency of government to expand and overreach its proper domain? I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you are obviously a patriot. And you have great respect for your fundamental institutions. And so it's necessary to separate those things out because otherwise, especially young people, they don't know what they can trust. And they need to trust something. You know, it's really important. Yes, yes. And another way I'd put it, I'd take exception to one thing you said where you suggested that I trust government as evidenced by the fact that I carry on the constitution and I seek to follow it. I'd turn that precisely on its head. In other words, the constitution reminds us that we don't trust government as an institution. We trust people, but not the government. The constitution is our key to making sure that we unlock unlimited human potential by recognizing the inherent dignity and infinite worth of every human being. And that we show that respect by saying that when we use force on you, as we do whenever government acts, we will do so respectfully and in a way that's measured, restrained, exercised at the appropriate level, and is geared specifically toward protecting life, liberty, and property. If it's not those things, we won't do it. We need to have trust and confidence in human beings because they're God's creations and because we are all created equal. When we put trust in government itself, we're putting trust in force. Now, human beings, while redeemable and basically inherently good, are themselves flawed and flawed specifically in the sense that they are covetous and powerful. And we've learned through sad experience throughout human history that when someone acquires power, especially power in his or her own estimation, that person will eventually begin to abuse that power insofar as that person is allowed to abuse that power. And so we have to compel the government to work for us and remind the government that it is not the sovereign. Okay, well that was otherwise people get hurt. That was exactly the kind of definition that I was hoping for. So let me, because of course we have finite time, I would like to turn our attention to a couple of other things. We talked a little bit about this rising tension, and you described some of your theories about why it's occurring. What else do you see as as characteristic of this rising tension? Like what worries you when you look at the United States right now, or maybe the Western world as a whole? But let's stick with the U.S. What concerns you? What keeps you up at night? And then maybe what do you think should be done about it? I tend to believe that the erosion of civil society is concerning, meaning the voluntary associations that free people form when they're allowed to be free, and that they form in the absence of any government telling them that they must, or that they may, or that they may not. They just do it. And by that I mean churches, mosques, synagogues, fraternal orders, charitable foundations, universities, neighborhood watch associations, all of those things that operate as an organized entity outside the force of government.
Rising tension, the disintegration of civil society (01:11:56)
Those are things that have really helped us. I've often said that the twin pillars of the thriving of the human condition, whether in American society or anywhere else, they tend to be built on robust institutions of civil society and free markets. If you have those two things, human beings can thrive. They won't always choose to do so. Sometimes they will make choices that will put them on a path of self-destruction. But if you've got those things in place and people make the right choices, human beings will thrive. You'll lift people out of poverty. I worry that as we've put more trust in government, we've allowed the muscle of civil society and the muscle memory of free markets to atrophy. And so it's not just what we've created through a bloated government that is the problem. It's also what we lose, what we give up in the process. People become less connected. The more brooding the government's presence is in their lives. And that worries me. As does some of the things that go along with that include religious associations and religious beliefs. And I worry that in many cases, we have traded faith either in an all-knowing, loving, all-powerful God with judges at the end of this life, or even if not that, faith in a set of principles by which we guide our lives, has in many places been replaced and supplanted by an almost religious faith geared toward government. This is in a sense the new idolatry, the idolatry of our time. Whenever I study the Old Testament, I'm struck by how much they focus almost obsessively on idolatry. And I thought, well, that's weird. We don't really see a whole lot of that here. In a sense, we do. When we worship mortal institutions, mortal institutions with immense military power, aircraft carriers, government offices, $4 trillion in annual outplays, that's an almost religious amount of faith toward something that is not God, and that doesn't bring us closer together.
Tradeoffs of power (01:14:14)
You've also said in your own personal experience that you can feel the temperatures rising in the Senate, say. And one of the things I was struck by, I was struck by a number of things when I went to Washington on the several occasions that I did. I was struck by how absurdly busy senators and congressmen were with their multitude of duties. And it was completely mysterious to me how any business ever got done given that. I was also struck by the lack of personal communication between people within political parties in the Senate and in Congress, but more particularly across. And so, well, you said that you felt this rising tension. And so, how have you experienced that?
Why Senator Lee admires his rivals (01:15:17)
And what's the consequence of that as far as you can tell? Well, it's not good. Across the board, the more issues there are where the parties are inextricably, unavoidably at odds with each other, it gets more difficult. And I'm not one who believes that we have to manufacture or contrive unity where it doesn't exist. There are some issues on which the parties really are in genuine disagreement. This doesn't reflect mere petulance on the part of politicians. Sometimes it can do that. But more than anything else, it reflects a genuine disagreement among those we represent who feel passionately one way or the other. But sadly, as we push more power up to the federal government, it seems like the more areas there are for these potential conflicts that are almost irreconcilable between two competing political worldviews. Well, that makes perfect sense if what you're saying is correct, because those conflicts should be resolved at a local level and maybe in a multitude of ways. If they're not resolved and popped up, they're going to affect more people and the conflicts themselves are going to aggregate. Right, exactly. Just as the saying goes, if everyone's family, then no one is. If everything is an emergency, then nothing is an emergency. And so too here. If everything is federal, then the federal government's not even going to be able to do the few things that only it can do. Things like immigration laws, trade policy, and war powers, and so forth. And so, you know, the way I've tried to deal with this in my own life and my own service in the Senate is to scan the horizon continuously to look for areas where the parties are not unavoidably at odds with each other and to identify allies. And to have done this in a whole host of areas from war powers to criminal justice reform, Fourth Amendment government surveillance, due process protections, and things like that. Some of my very favorite people in the Senate, many, many of them happen to be people who are at the opposite end of the political continuum from me. I've found, I don't know whether everyone's experience is similar to mine, but in the Senate, at least we have more of an ability to get to know each other than members of the House of Representatives. There are 435 of them. There are only 100 of us. You don't get to know all of my colleagues equally well, but I have the chance to get to know most of them. And it really is a great experience. And I've also found that my personal life is a great experience. I mean, politicians don't generally have a good name, so to speak. You know, I was very impressed on a personal level with the people I met when I went down to Washington. I mean, they all seem Democrat and Republican-like. Their stories of motivation for involvement in politics were so similar. They wanted to serve their country. I had no reason to believe that that sentiment was false. They, without exception, seemed like admirable people to me. You're talking about your admiration extending beyond the limits of your political party. I mean, why is that? What are these people like, apart from the media depiction of them, let's say? They're great people. They're fascinating people. They're people who love their country. They're people who, in many, many respects, want the same outcome that I want, which is opportunities for a thriving of a human condition, globally, certainly, and especially here in the United States. Those ultimate outcomes are shared by, I think, all 100 of us.
The War Powers Resolution & criminal justice reform (01:19:06)
We do have different theories and different approaches about how to get there. The minute I'm able to see on any particular issue how that particular senator, no matter how much I might disagree with her or him on a particular issue, if I can see why it is that they believe that their policy, competing with mine or at odds with mine, really gets to the same nirvana-like outcome, the same positive outcome, it's easier for me to try to figure out whether there is a way to reconcile the two approaches. There isn't always. In many cases, there is not. But in a whole lot of cases, there are ways to get there. And that's an especially rewarding part of the process. There's something especially rewarding about unexpected success, about something working when you don't expect it to from the outside. Yeah, well, that makes you smile. I mean, so there's something about that that must keep you going. And so what are you thinking about something in particular, like something, a concrete example of that kind of success? Yeah, so referred a few minutes ago to invoking the War Powers Act adopted in 1973, Bernie Sanders and I got together to try to get us out of civil war in Yemen. The first time in the history of the War Powers Act, we got something passed in Congress before last. Unfortunately, it didn't make it through the House of Representatives before that Congress ended. And we got it passed again in the next Congress. Then we got the House to pass the same thing. It got to President Trump's desk, and unfortunately, he vetoed it. We tried to override the veto, we didn't succeed. But have you got a chance now? Yes, not only have we got a chance, but President Biden has the last few days announced that he's going to get us out of Yemen. And assuming he follows through with what I expect out of that, the entire issue would mercifully have come to with the right conclusion. When I first started in the Senate- That must be really satisfying. Oh, it was fantastic. It's a really fulfilling moment. It's a minor victory in a sense that it's small compared to other disputes, and compared to the number of people who are aware of it. But it's a huge issue. It's a big issue. Criminal justice reform is something I identified as a brand new senator about 10 years ago that I wanted to achieve. I saw too many people within our federal criminal system in the United States being sent away to prison, sometimes for decades at a time, for a relatively minor nonviolent defense.
Fixing the Criminal Justice System, Pushing Forward (01:21:46)
We had a case in Utah that I became aware of nearly 20 years ago. It's an individual, a young man who has become a dear friend since then, named Weldon Angelos. Weldon Angelos was caught selling three dime-back quantities of marijuana over a 72-hour period to a person who, as it turned out, was a confidential informant of a law enforcement agency. Because of the fact that he was carrying a gun at the time, a gun that was neither brandished nor discharged in connection with the offense, Mr. Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling three small sandwich bag quantities of pot. It's ridiculous. The federal judge who sentenced them said that there are hijackers, murderers, rapists, terrorists who don't get this much time, but I have got no discretion on this case, and only Congress can fix this problem. Those words were still echoing through my mind when I got to the Senate and started reaching out, initially, to some fairly liberal Democrats. Dick Durbin and I teamed up. Cory Booker came to the Senate a short time later. He joined up with us. We ended up passing the most sweeping criminal justice reform law in an entire generation in December of 2018 with the First Step Act. And we brought judges more discretion. Dick Durbin and I are still working on another bill to finish what we started there. Example after example of things like this that we've gotten done that are gratifying, that are rewarding. It makes it all worthwhile. Yeah, I can tell. I mean, you light right up when you talk about those things, and it looks like 10 years falls away from you instantly. It's really something to see. So I can see that enthusiasm, untrammeled enthusiasm, and still believe that the system works, which is so lovely to see in an age of cynicism. What's your day like? Walk us through what a day in the life of a senator the day of life of a senator.
Senator'S Life And Closing Discussion
A Senators Life in Washington, The Day-to-Day (01:23:43)
I'd like to know. When the Senate's in session, we're in Washington, each day is filled with accommodation of committee hearings, votes on the Senate floor inside the Senate chamber, sometimes giving a speech or two here or there, maybe on the Senate floor, maybe to some group that's assembled with the Capitol, meetings with constituents who happen to be in town and in Washington. And then the balance of that time might be reserved for conducting interviews with reporters from the media, and in many cases meeting individually or sometimes talking on the phone with colleagues, debating and negotiating the terms of legislation. You're pushing and you're preparing for either a committee hearing or a markup, which is a vote inside of a committee or for a Senate floor vote. Those things take up an enormous amount of time. And you noticed earlier that we're struck by how busy members are. It's true. We stay very busy. Motion shouldn't always be confused with actual progress on this or that issue, but we certainly stay in motion. But it does speak to the burden of the of the job. Yeah, no, that's right. That's right. One of my favorite things that I do at least once a week, sometimes more, I'll meet with colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, and over a meal, dinner or on other occasions breakfast, we'll meet together, we'll pray together, we'll share our personal experiences, our own walk through life. And we develop a great appreciation for each other. The fact that there is real humanity behind the political figures that are known to media pundits, but the person needs to be understood in order for the legislative body to function properly. Well, that is a nice ending. I was going to ask you what you might say to viewers and listeners who find themselves becoming cynical about the political process. But I think that the last 10 minutes of this discussion actually answered that question. And so I think I'll leave it at that and not ask for an explicit answer because the implicit answer is much better.
In closing. (01:26:23)
I was overwhelmed with admiration, I would say, of the institutions that I had the privilege of visiting when I was in Washington. I think the current level of political tension disturbs me because so much of what's established already is so great and it works. And it would be lovely if that was more widely known and the cheap cynicism that passes for wisdom these days was casually discarded. So thank you very much for talking with me today. Oh, thank you so much. If you can convince a Democrat to sit down with me, I would like that. I'll get right on it. I'm sure there will be many who would love that opportunity. Yeah, maybe. I don't know. They might think being seen with me in public is anathema. It might not be because I can listen. And I think the net is an absolutely underutilized resource for political figures who actually want to communicate with the public because it's long form. There's no sound bites. You can say what you want to say. You can bring your thoughts directly to the people that you serve with no intermediation. And I know it's not a trusted venue yet for people in the political arena, but I think it's an opportunity that's waiting to be exploited. Waiting to be used, not exploited. You can't really exploit long form media. It's not susceptible to manipulation in the same way that the old media forms were.
People who are interested in straightforward communication can really benefit from the advantages of these podcasts and YouTube videos. And I'll tell you, I've learned the general public is a hell of a lot smarter than people think and hungry for information in a way that no one would have ever expected. I think we were blinded to that by the constraints of broadcast TV, which had to assume that no one knew anything and that everything had to be compressed into something approximating 30 seconds to half an hour. People don't need to be spoon fed that way. No, that's brilliantly put, Jordan. And I want to thank you for seeing that in this particular medium. You've harnessed this in a way that's inspired an entire generation of Americans to utilize this resource as a tool for healing and reconciliation and understand it. So thank you for doing that. Well, I hope that I can see you again in Washington at some point. That would be wonderful. And again, thanks again. Maybe in a couple of months, if you're interested, we could talk again and we'll find some other topics to go at.
This Hunger of Yours, Jordan (01:29:30)
You can tell us a little bit more about what's happening in the current government and about what you think might happen, what should happen in the future if we're lucky. I'd like to hear about all of that.
Devin's outro (01:29:45)
Absolutely. Anytime you name the moment and I'll join you. I'd love nothing more. Great. Thanks. Thanks again. Thanks so much. Take care.