SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Republicans Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Mia Love were in their home state Thursday to promote an effort to "reclaim" Congress' power from the executive branch.
Lee introduced the Article One Project as a "network" of House and Senate conservatives working together on a "new agenda of government reform" to restore power to Congress.
"The entire premise of the Article One Project is simple," Lee told students at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "The federal government is broken. It's not working in an optimal fashion, and congressional weakness is to blame. And I don't mean accidental congressional weakness. I mean very deliberate congressional weakness."
That's because, Lee said, Congress has been losing its power for decades because politicians have willingly "handed over" their constitutional responsibilities to the executive branch's regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Today, more than 95 percent of federal laws are not passed by the House and the Senate and signed into law by the president, but instead they're created and imposed by "unelected bureaucrats," Lee said.
But the bureaucrats are only doing the jobs they were given, he said.
"Congress isn't the victim here. Congress is the perpetrator," Lee said. "Congress has cast itself as sort of the back-seat driver of our federal government."
Last year, 580 bills passed out of the House and 100 went through the Senate to be written into law by the president, Love said. By comparison, regulatory agencies wrote 3,378 rules and laws that didn't have to be passed by Congress.
Love called the federal regulatory agencies the "fourth branch of government that isn't supposed to exist."
"They don't answer to anyone. They're not elected by us. If we don't like what they're doing, it's very difficult to reverse what they're doing," she said.
The Article One Project would focus on restoring congressional power in four key ways: "reclaiming Congress' power of the purse; reforming legislative cliffs that unduly empower the executive (branch); reclaiming congressional authority over regulations and regulators; and reforming executive discretion," according to the project's policy brief.
Lee acknowledged it may sound "bizarre" to talk about empowering Congress when it's one of the most distrusted institutions in the entire country.
"In many ways, we're not even doing our job," he said, noting the constant gridlock between Senate and House partisanship.
So why, then, should Americans trust Congress to enact effective regulations?
"It's not because we're smart. It's not because we're good looking. It's not because we are particularly talented," Lee said. "It's because we work for you and you can replace us every two and six years. That's the only reason. Congress is the only branch of government that is that directly accountable to the people."
Love said she's asking Washington to trust the people.
"The time has come where we can't sit back and let Washington make the decisions for us anymore," she said. "This is literally the American people not trusting Washington. So we have to show them that we're willing to trust them. You're not going to be able to save everyone from everything, but you've got to empower people again."
Tim Chambless, a U. political science professor affiliated with the Hinckley Institute, said he doesn't see the Article One Project gaining much traction because no Democrats have come forward to support the effort.
Chambless added that some don't see the regulatory agencies as having too much power. Instead, the bureaucracies have grown as the nation's population has grown, and the federal government needs a mechanism to implement and enforce its laws.
"(Conservatives) are talking about this right now because they are frustrated because of the gridlock, but meanwhile the bureaucracy continues to function," he said, adding that it's an election year for Love and Lee, and they could be pandering to voters who are also frustrated with the stalemate in Congress.
Lee spent all of Thursday speaking to Utahns about the Article One Project, traveling from the University of Utah to Utah Valley University to hold a forum at 3 p.m., then joining the national tea party organization FreedomWorks in Sandy at 7:30 p.m. for a grass-roots forum.