Utah Sen. Mike Lee told state lawmakers that legislative action on pressing foreign and domestic issues must be done right, respecting proper government authority, or it will do more harm than good.

Lee encouraged a cautious approach to policymaking on Wednesday during an annual visit to the Capitol where he joined House and Senate Republicans behind closed doors, and Democrats from both chambers in publicly accessible caucus meetings.

The appearance from Utah’s senior U.S. senator comes one week after Sen. Mitt Romney stood on the Hill to answer questions from legislators and reporters. Lee did not hold a media availability but spoke with the Deseret News over the phone about the themes of his visit.

“There is a natural impulse,” Lee said, “when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail, or at least a lot of things start to look like nails that are not in fact nails.”

The metaphorical hammer of government must be applied judiciously, and with restraint, Lee said, to avoid compounding challenges or spawning new ones. But he recognized this often contradicts the incentive lawmakers face to quickly develop proposals without carefully considering the proper purview of government or the likelihood of unintended consequences.

“If all you’ve got is unfettered exuberance to get something done in the abstract, or to pass a particular bill, or even just to solve a particular problem, you could create just as many victims as as you do beneficiaries,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee speaks to Senate Democrats at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Why did Sen. Lee oppose border deal and foreign aid package?

This was the frame Lee used to respond to concerns from Utah Democrats about his voting record on border security and Ukraine military assistance.

Earlier this month, Lee led efforts in Congress to oppose a bipartisan immigration deal as well as a stand-alone Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan aid package.

During Lee’s presentation to Utah Senate Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the president and Congress shared the blame for lack of action on the nation’s border crisis and expressed hope that the issue will be a priority for Congress and not be used “as a political game.”

Lee agreed the current moment represented a “big opportunity” to address the issue of immigration but said the border security deal, which was unveiled at the beginning of February after months of negotiations, was not something Senate Republicans could support, noting they’d “agreed to one thing and received another less than 48 hours before we were asked to cast the first vote on it.”

There was still the possibility that border security legislation could pass the Senate, Lee said — with or without foreign aid funding.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, asked Lee what would need to be included in a bill for him to support additional aid to Ukraine. The senator said he had supported early aid packages to Ukraine but had switched his vote on later iterations because they included large dollar amounts that weren’t traceable or weren’t going directly toward the “military mission.”

The most recent proposal to help fund Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia, Lee said, contained nearly $8 billion for Ukrainian government operations. Before he could lend his support to a Ukraine aid package, it would need to increase the ability to audit how money is used, in addition to including provisions “requiring operational control of our own border.”

“It is offensive to many Americans, including, frankly, me, that we’ve spent $113 billion so far, and we’re being asked to spend an additional $60 billion, on helping another country protect its own border when our border is insecure,” Lee said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee speaks to Senate Democrats at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What did Lee report about his work in Congress?

House Majority Leader Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, told the Deseret News lawmakers in his caucus asked Lee how to approach issues that strike at the division between state and federal rights, including energy production, air quality regulation and land issues.

“When you think back to the original founding of our country, they were our representatives in Washington, D.C.,” Moss said. “It’s good to have them come back and report on how they’re representing our state and, on the other hand, there’s things that we can do at the state level. Sometimes some of the pressure we put, resolutions we pass, actually help drive things at the federal level. So I think it’s really good to have that discussion.”

Lee began both of his brief presentations with House and Senate Democrats by going over bills he introduced that would reduce “red tape” preventing wide-scale production of generic biologic medicines and that would prevent warrantless “backdoor” searches of Americans’ private electronic communications gathered via Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“These two bills in particular happen to share a common theme which is that they both involve measures to correct features of existing law and existing practice by government under existing law where the law itself, and the government itself, is creating the problem,” Lee told the Deseret News in an interview following his presentation.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks to Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

What did Sen. Lee say about Utah’s primary election laws?

On Sunday, Lee called on state lawmakers to amend or repeal a 10-year-old law that created an alternative signature-gathering route for candidates wishing to secure their party’s nomination.

Lee said in a message posted on X that SB54, passed in 2014, had empowered candidates to bypass the party’s preferred candidate-selection mechanism, the caucus convention system, and penalized parties that didn’t comply.

Lee has made use of both nomination pathways during previous reelection campaigns, saying it makes sense for candidates to operate within the legal framework other candidates are also using. But he told the Deseret News he opposed SB54 from the beginning because it is an example of state lawmakers overstepping their bounds to the detriment of Utahns.

“Private entities are supposed to be able to govern themselves. And the state is commandeering that,” Lee told the Deseret News.

Lee disagrees with arguments that state-funded primaries are necessarily better for democracy than internal party processes, both on principle and outcomes, saying that state government should not be regulating a party organization’s right of association and that signature-gathering primaries are biased toward independently wealthy and incumbent candidates.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who sponsored SB54, along with now-Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he respected Lee’s opinion but that SB54 was a necessary step to preserve the caucus convention system against the prospect of a ballot initiative that would have completely eliminated it.

Accepting a less-than-ideal proposal in order to avoid an even worse outcome is inherent to lawmaking, Lee acknowledged. But that doesn’t mean state legislators shouldn’t act now to roll back primary requirements and empower parties to determine their nomination process, according to Lee.

“Here 10 years later, we’re not better off. This has not led to a greater democratization, if anything, it’s had the opposite effect,” Lee said.

The senator’s greatest fear is that political parties become “arms of the state,” because regardless of a lawmaker’s good intentions, Lee said, when the state treads where it ought not, or by reckless means, it would often be better if it hadn’t addressed the issue at all.

“If you exceed, for example, the proper role of government in general, if you don’t recognize any limit on what government is or what government does, the task of lawmaking,” Lee said, “can immediately become dangerous, even weaponized.”