About once a month, Sen. Mike Lee's Capitol Hill office turns into a television studio.
Since February of 2013, the Utah Republican has convened regular video town halls, with professional quality broadcast equipment that's been put to regular use.
And now that Lee and his staff have moved into more spacious quarters on the third floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, there's even a fireplace. A Lee aide said it's the only such regular video session in the Senate, though it seems more are sure to follow as lawmakers are always looking for new ways to reach constituents.
The live video audience can be minuscule, but Lee's staff reported more than 10,000 people had joined on the telephone. However, the video recording has another benefit: Clips posted on YouTube with answers to the wide variety of questions can be shared later with constituents.
To wit, the archive features dozens of archived questions and answers, such as one from February in which a caller asked Lee a question that was described by staff as, "Is the Constitution under attack?" That came in the middle of the battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security — with Lee among those taking part in an unwinnable fight to withhold funding for President Barack Obama's immigration executive actions.
But Lee wasn't shy that evening in signaling he would partake in future such fights, which he views as constitutional questions that shouldn't be left for the courts.
"It's one of many examples whereof I've declined to say, 'Ah let's let the courts worry about this,' because it's got to be dealt with first here in Congress," Lee said in February. "You've got my commitment ... that any time something like this happens, I'll bring it up on the floor of the Senate, and I will fight it out."
Last week, CQ Roll Call stopped by to watch the question-and-answer session behind the scenes, observing that a band of interns answered phones in an adjoining room while staffers sorted through questions coming in on the phone lines and through social media (the webcast came through the Ustream website and on Lee's official Facebook page.)
On this evening, Lee's chief of staff, Boyd Matheson, served as the moderator. Aides said the responsibility rotates among members of the staff. Topics ranged from the usual fare for a conservative Republican — Obamacare and government regulation and taxes — to a question about Lee's favorite philosopher.
"You know, I'd probably have to go with Charles de Montesquieu, who was probably the most influential political philosopher on the founding fathers. Charles de Montesquieu understood power. He understood the risks that accompany power. He understood that power is best managed when it's split up, when it's divided in its different ways," Lee said.
"He understood that the job of the lawmaker is to make laws, not to make other lawmakers," Lee said. "The more I read of Charles de Montesquieu, the more I realize what a profound impact he had on the founding fathers and on our Constitution."
(At last check, that answer had 62 views on YouTube. A question on Attorney General Loretta Lynch generated hundreds of views).
The urgent debate over extending surveillance authorities of the Patriot Act was fresh on Lee's mind, as the town hall came just after the House voted, 338-88, to pass its version of the USA Freedom Act he wrote with Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. Before the camera went live, Lee and his staff cheered the outcome, talking about the momentum the lopsided vote could provide in the Senate. The House margin was well north of even a veto-proof majority (though the White House is fully behind the bill).
During the town hall, Lee praised Leahy, repeating a familiar line about issues where the fault lines are neither Republican nor Democratic.
"He's a liberal Democrat — and I'm not, but we do agree on this issue, that the federal government has no business tracking your calling data," Lee told the viewers and listeners. "It's none of the government's business, and so the USA Freedom Act says they can't collect information like this unless they can hook that information up to some kind of legitimate investigation into foreign intelligence gathering activity."
Lee went on to make a sales pitch of sorts, calling for constituents to look at the bill he's sponsored with Leahy and engage on the issue ahead of the June 1 deadline.
"If you agree with me on this, help spread the word. Help spread the word to your friends, your neighbors, your family members, and help spread the word to anyone serving in the United States Senate that they should support and vote for the USA Freedom Act," Lee said.
The question is how much support Lee can build for his legislation, which appears likely to have to be offered as an amendment to a clean two-month extension of the expiring law that's been introduced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentuckian is one of several Republicans who disagree with Lee about the efficacy of the House-passed bill.
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