The chairman of Joint Economic Committee sits down with Yahoo Finance's Rick Newman to discuss his economic work, the chances of another stimulus deal next year, and his own experience with the coronavirus.
RICK NEWMAN: Welcome to "Yahoo Finance Presents." I'm Rick Newman, and today we're talking with Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah. Senator Lee, thank you for joining us.
MIKE LEE: Thank you.
RICK NEWMAN: We'll talk about politics in a minute, but first I want to ask you about some of your work on the Joint Economic Committee. You're chair of that committee, and that committee has been doing a project called the Social Capital Project for a couple years. I've looked over some of the research there. It looks like kind of a well-being of the middle class report, well-being of families and things like that. What is the nature of that work, and what are some of the findings?
MIKE LEE: Well, we all know there's a whole lot more to life than dollars and cents. There are families. There are marriages. There are community organizations and neighborhoods. These are the things that really make us and define us and lead to human thriving.
And all of these things make up the network of relationships that we call social capital. The Social Capital Project is something that I started as chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. It is a multiyear research effort that has been investigating the current state of these relationships.
And, you know, what we found is that even before COVID, a lot of our communities were struggling with the challenges that come from isolation, and isolation can come about as a result of addiction, family breakdown. And COVID has, of course, made a lot of these issues worse.
Take marriage, for example, which even prior to COVID was at a low point. That is something that could be getting worse. And when those things did get worse, it leads to more deaths of despair and more addiction, more unemployment. It's one of the reasons why we focus on it.
You know, government can't and shouldn't ever try to force or coerce people into getting married. That's not the role of government. But what we can do is look for ways in which government might be making matters worse, and we can take off some of that burden.
RICK NEWMAN: There's a lot of research along these lines, including a lot of research on wealth inequality and income inequality, which has generally been worsening for about 40 years. And this is a tough problem. You know, there are no easy solutions to what you might call the fraying of American culture. Are you finding solutions in any of this work, and does this lead to any kind of legislative initiatives?
MIKE LEE: Yeah, it does, and that's the whole point of the Joint Economic Committee. It's kind of an internal think tank within Congress.
You know, if you look, for example, at what some of our federal welfare programs are doing to families, they're tending to discourage people from entering into marriage to begin with in sheer economic terms and in terms that end up having more of a toll on poor-- at lower-income Americans than on others because of simple dynamics like-- take, for example, a couple where one partner earns, say, $24,000 a year and the other partner earns $20,000 a year. We've estimated that if that couple chose to get married, that couple would stand to lose $10,500 in benefits from the government. There's no reason why our federal welfare programs should have to discourage marriage like that, especially since we know that marriage has a close correlation to upward economic mobility. And so I'm working on legislation that would undo some of those penalties and would at least stop the government from discouraging marriage.
RICK NEWMAN: Congress is split at the moment with Democrats controlling the Senate-- excuse me, Republicans controlling the Senate, Democrats controlling the House. Still not clear if that will be the case after those two run-off elections in Georgia. But, you know, whatever the case, whatever the outcome, I mean, there's going to be very narrow control of the Senate for one party or the other. We have the new Joe Biden administration coming in. He has proposed a lot of things to make the economy fairer and to address some of these issues, wealth and income inequality. Do you see any areas for possible bipartisan legislative work over the next two years, let's say?
MIKE LEE: Sure. Look, there are lots of things we can do. There are plenty of areas where the parties are at odds with each other, plenty of areas where they're not. Take, for example, the child tax credit. This is something I've been working on for many years, something I've worked on with the Trump administration to increase the per-child tax credit and thereby decrease what I call the parent tax penalty that's inherent in our system. The way our tax code and our senior entitlement programs interact sometimes hurts people who have kids.
I've got a lot of Democratic friends who like the idea and who have approached me on it. This is one of many ways in which I think we could work together, particularly in developing profamily policies that would help America's poor and middle class.
RICK NEWMAN: What's your advice to Joe Biden as he, you know, takes office in a few weeks in terms of how to approach Congress with some of these priorities? So do small standalone things such as you just mentioned, a child tax credit or, you know, bills that have something for everybody, or how does he get some of his-- some of his ideas passed?
MIKE LEE: You know, I've come to believe that we would do a lot better and we'd have a lot more bipartisanship and bipartisan success if we legislated at a slightly more granular level. That doesn't mean that we have to be dealing with things that can always be put onto one page, but it should in many instances result in us focusing on a single, fairly narrow topic. I think that would be a confidence-building exercise and one that would allow us to realize that there is a lot that can be done if we don't tie everything to everything else.
RICK NEWMAN: Congress is still trying to get a fourth stimulus bill passed. I mean, we've been asking every member of Congress we interview about this since August. So, I mean, we just-- people just want to know. Like, is there any chance we are going to get another stimulus bill, or could this be something that doesn't even happen?
MIKE LEE: You know, bottom line is I'm not sure, but we have to remember that Senate Democrats have, for the last few months, been blocking us from even beginning debate on COVID relief bills. Now, I didn't like everything in these bills, but I voted to begin debating them so that we could start to amend them and make them better and figure out where compromise could be achieved, but Democrats wouldn't allow that. And so until such time as their unwillingness to begin debate, it transforms into something else. That seems unlikely.
RICK NEWMAN: I mean, a lot-- you know, we know from our audience and a lot of people, they don't care about the blame game in Washington, who-- you know, who is holding up what. They just need help or they know people who need help. I mean, what is the realm of the possible at this point? I mean, do you think we'll have a stimulus bill of at least $500 billion by January 31, let's say?
MIKE LEE: I think that's entirely possible once we get into the new Congress, but I really don't know, in part because we don't know who's going to be in control of the Senate. We don't know what strategy Democrats are going to beginning-- going to be deploying.
But I want to get back to your point a moment ago about the fact that people who need relief don't care about the blame game. I understand that. I get them. This isn't about blame, but this is about the fact that in order to pass something, we first have to begin debate. And while neither party is perfect and neither party is without blame generally, in this circumstance where we're talking about COVID relief bills over the last few months, it is, in fact, Democrats that were refusing to allow us to begin debate on them. That does matter, and they should have to answer for that.
RICK NEWMAN: I want to ask you about some of Joe Biden's nominees. A little controversy recently over his nominee for the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, with some Republicans saying she's radioactive. That was one quote. She has been kind of mean to some Republicans in the Senate. What's your attitude about whether she can get confirmed?
MIKE LEE: I don't know. I suspect it's going to have a lot to do with who ends up with the majority. In all candor, I haven't followed this one closely, and I'm not sure how that one's going to turn out.
RICK NEWMAN: If Republicans do retain control of the Senate, do you think Joe Biden is going to have trouble getting some of his nominees through the Senate? Will it help him that he is a former senator, that he knows Mitch McConnell and many of the other senators, or is he going to have a hard time?
MIKE LEE: Well, certainly the relationships that he's developed in the Senate could be a benefit to him, particularly if he chooses to utilize those relationships and get feedback from members of the senate on both sides of the aisle in deciding where to push and where not to push. So that could certainly be a benefit to him.
As to your question specifically with regard to whether he might have trouble getting some of his people through, I think anytime you end up with a Senate that is under the control of one political party and the president is under the-- is a member of the other political party, yeah, there will be times when not all nominees make it through. But, of course, that's true even in the case where you've got so-called united government where the Senate and the White House are under the control of the same party.
RICK NEWMAN: Congress does need to pass another spending bill by-- next week, I think, is the deadline for that just to keep the government functioning. Is that going to go through smoothly? Is that something Americans need to be paying attention to, or can they just trust that that's going to get taken care of?
MIKE LEE: I strongly suspect that something will be passed. I can't imagine that there's going to be a shutdown. I don't think either party wants a shutdown or would benefit from a shutdown right now. So I think what's likely to happen, assuming that an omnibus isn't negotiated, the latest rumor I'm hearing is that there might be a continuing resolution taking us into perhaps mid-February.
RICK NEWMAN: Is there any likelihood that stimulus gets rolled into that spending bill next week, or is that just too complicated and too short of a deadline to make that happen?
MIKE LEE: It seems unlikely at this point. Obviously a lot could change in the next 10 days. We've got until December 11 is when the spending deadline hits. So yeah, it's possible. Seems unlikely.
RICK NEWMAN: Senator Lee, you contracted COVID-19 in October, I believe. Can you tell us what that was like? Was that relatively a painless experience, or was it more difficult than that?
MIKE LEE: I didn't require hospitalization. I was really tired for, you know, a week or 10 days and had to get a lot of sleep. You know, caught up on rest and watching TV. It was not pleasant, but got through it just fine.
RICK NEWMAN: What did you binge?
MIKE LEE: You know, I ended up binge watching a fair amount of "30 Rock." I don't know why I was drawn to that. During this whole experience, for a while I felt lousy enough that I didn't feel like reading, and watching long movies was sometimes tedious. So watching something with rapid-fire comedy was a nice diversion for me. So yeah, I went through a lot of old episodes of "30 Rock." It was fun.
RICK NEWMAN: Like you didn't have to think too hard.
MIKE LEE: Yeah, exactly.
RICK NEWMAN: Did that experience change the way you think about coronavirus?
MIKE LEE: No because my experience with the virus was roughly as it had been described by a lot of people. So I can't say that it changed it. Certainly helped me have more empathy for those who have had it. But then again, been aware for some time of what the virus was like, and it was roughly as advertised, not particularly fun.
RICK NEWMAN: Last thing I want to ask before we wrap up here, how would you like to see President Trump end his presidency?
MIKE LEE: Well, I'd like to see President Trump end his presidency continuing to message the fact that he's been a champion of America's poor and middle class. He's been a champion for them by restraining the size, the scope, the reach of the federal government and that he's brought about middle-class tax relief for them and that he has stood up for them by passing the largest criminal-justice reform in an entire generation, something that I had worked on for nearly a decade and was very pleased that he signed.
I think right up until the end he's going to be fighting for regulatory reform within his own administration, and I hope he will continue along those same messages of saying, look, I came to Washington not to be part of Washington, but to make Washington work better for America's poor and middle class.
RICK NEWMAN: Senator Mike Lee of Utah, thank you for your time.
MIKE LEE: Thank you.