The Last Honest Man in Congress
Rep. Justin Amash on Capitol Hill skullduggery, surveillance surprises, and how Donald Trump "could be very dangerous as president"
Since Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) first entered Congress in January 2011, there have been more than 3,500 roll call votes in the House of Representatives. Amash hasn't missed a single one.
When former Speaker of the House John Boehner—whom Amash helped push out of his leadership role last fall—used to preside over "pro forma" sessions during which most members were away from Washington, the libertarian-leaning congressman would always attend, just to make sure Boehner didn't try to sneak a voice-vote extension of the PATRIOT Act. "Trust but verify," the Michigan maverick would say, quoting Ronald Reagan's famous line about the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons negotiations. Yes, Amash speaks of his own party the way Reagan spoke of the Russkies.
There is ample reason for such a skeptical approach. In mid-December, President Barack Obama signed into law a hastily thrown together 2,242-page $1.8 trillion omnibus spending bill that didn't just make a mockery of prior Republican commitments to keep federal spending in check; it included a series of last-minute insertions, many of them anathema to fiscal responsibility and constitutional restraint. (See "What Is Congress Hiding?" page 18.) Among the non-debated provisions was the 100-page Cybersecurity Act of 2015, which drastically expanded the federal government's ability to scoop up Americans' digital information without a warrant. "I asked the chairman of Homeland Security whether the cyber bill was going to be included in the omnibus," Amash says, "and he didn't know." The congressman promptly authored a straight-up repeal.
Though often touted (including in this magazine) as the House's most obvious successor to Ron Paul, Amash is not a lone-wolf "Dr. No." His is one of the most influential voices in the House Freedom Caucus, a 40-member bloc of constitutional conservatives who were pivotal in Boehner's ouster and the selection of his replacement, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.). When Amash says "I want to give Paul Ryan a chance to see how he operates with a full year," that is not just some idle personal observation.
If the Republican-controlled 114th Congress is going to amount to anything useful from a libertarian point of view, Amash will be central in that effort. If not, he will be one of the loudest canaries in the Capitol Hill coal mine.
reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch spoke with Amash in his congressional office in Washington, D.C., this January.
reason: When the Republicans took the Senate, there was a lot of talk that they were going to restore both fiscal responsibility and procedural responsibility. Here we are, 10 days after another omnibus bill. What happened?
Justin Amash: They're always promising that next time we'll be better. "We need the House," then "we need the Senate," then "we need the White House," then "we need a supermajority"—it seems like they're never really interested in actually doing anything in the present. The excuse is usually that we don't have the votes or we don't have the right president to sign the bill, but that highlights the problem with their thinking. They're not interested in persuading people. They're interested in waiting.
reason: You have to wait until the next election and then maybe tip the numbers a little bit more?
Amash: Their hope is that people will for some reason elect more Republicans.
We've had a good run in the House. We have a large majority right now. I think there are a lot of reasons for that—and I do think redistricting and some of the gerrymandering around the country helped with that. But if your idea is simply to wait for the White House and the supermajority in the Senate, good luck. You're likely never to get everything you want.
reason: When Republicans just had the House, you were able to get a sequestration deal to have conversations about long-term entitlement reform, to flatten the growth of spending for a couple of years, and to actually cut some military spending in real terms. Then Republicans got the Senate and that was all ripped and blown up. The fiscal responsibility is less now than it was in 2012.
Amash: Yeah. And people forget that the sequester and the budget caps were already a consolation compared to what we should have had, which was a much more significant cut in spending in exchange for the increase in the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling was increased at the time by something like $2 trillion, and the proposed reductions in spending—they're not really cuts, even, they're reductions in the growth rate—amounted to something like $200 billion. So it already wasn't nearly what we needed.
I asked Speaker Boehner in our conference meeting, "How do we know that we don't pass this sequester now and then in the near future we reverse it and eliminate all of the cuts." And he got upset with me, actually. He said, "To do that you'd have to believe that all of the people in this room are going to vote to get rid of the sequester."
reason: Is it that the cuts are too painful? Is it purely a military thing?
Amash: A big part of it is military spending, which is driven not primarily by our national defense needs but by the needs of defense contractors. Or the wants of defense contractors, to be more precise. There are a lot of Republicans who recognize that you can't increase that spending without also giving the Democrats what they want, which is increased domestic spending. You have Republicans who are very happy to give the Democrats all sorts of things in order to get spending for their friends.
reason: My theory is that Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, the latter of whom I have esteem for, kind of screwed the pooch by holding their breath and turning blue over Obamacare in 2013. It was another faceoff, another cliff, another high-profile staring contest in Washington. The debt ceiling had been a high-profile staring contest, but it was one that consistently had popularity among the American people. Shutting down the government never does. They gave Paul Ryan or whoever else enough excuse to say, "Hey, no more brinkmanship from now on." So therefore you got rid of your best leveraging maneuver. Am I right or am I totally wrong?
Amash: I don't know. We've had enough of these standoffs at this point where I can't recall the details of each one, but I do think that budget issues have been lost in the mix over the past couple of years. They haven't been prioritized, and those are the issues that really resonated when I first ran for Congress.
They resonate still today. They cross party lines. If I'm in a town hall and I talk about the importance of reining in our spending and reining in debt, people like that line of thinking, whether they're Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, or independents. We've really moved away from that, and I think there's been a lot of focus on other issues, including some social issues. These are important issues, but at the end of the day, if our debt reaches a critical point where we can't turn things around, we're going to lose a lot of freedoms in this country.
reason: I was appalled to watch the late December presidential campaign. This is right when you guys were dealing with this omnibus—this big huge pile of spending with lots of junk thrown in there, exhuming the carcass of the Ex-Im Bank, all this crap that fiscal conservatives don't like. And no one talked about it at the debate. How did that happen? Is it because Republicans run [Congress], there isn't a conflict to drive attention and a narrative?
Amash: I think that's right. With Republicans controlling both chambers, the infighting has been reduced. You don't have Harry Reid out there every day as the spokesperson for the Senate. And when you're looking at things like the presidential debates, you have Donald Trump with his own set of issues, who pulls from these other issues.
reason: I know quite a few fiscal-hawk Tea Party people who are more libertarian than some other Tea Party people. There's a lot of "We did all this to create the avenue for Donald Trump to walk down, a guy who shares literally nothing in common with the stated goals of any kind of Tea Party gathering, except for the vague nod toward making America great again?" What do you think happened? Did it dissipate? Remission?
Amash: Donald Trump is the byproduct of a political establishment that has completely ignored Americans. I don't think he's ever talked about the Constitution, but he doesn't have to. He just has to be against Washington and people at home say to themselves, "Well, Washington's not standing up for us and this guy will."
reason: And they're right about at least one part of that analysis.
Amash: I think he could be very dangerous as a president, but Americans at home want someone who's going to stick it to Washington, D.C., and he'll certainly do that. He'll create a lot of havoc in the process—and probably violate a lot of rights in the process, based on what I've heard from him—but unfortunately the political establishment here hasn't been paying attention to people at home, and conservatives haven't been able to knock the establishment off its pedestal. Whereas Donald Trump has been able to.
reason: One of Trump's issues is Syrian immigrants. Your family emanates partly from Syria, right?
Amash: My mom is Syrian and my dad is a Palestinian refugee. He was born in 1940.
reason: The first and only time I saw Donald Trump speak, he said he'd heard that we don't even allow Syrian Christians to come in, like they're banned from coming in to the country. And now there's strong talk, including in the halls of Congress, about severely limiting the already limited number of Syrian refugees. How do you assess the conversation and the policy?
Amash: I do think it's correct that it is difficult for Syrian Christians to come to the United States. We've experienced that in our own office when talking to people who are trying to bring Syrian Christian families here.
reason: An extra layer of difficulty for them?
Amash: I think it's because Syrian Christians generally don't go through the refugee process. They try to come through other means, by visa, and it doesn't work as easily. They're not going to the refugee camps. Many of them, I think, are afraid to. So I think there is something to that.
When it comes to refugees overall, the important thing to me, as a representative for the United States, is making sure that we know who is coming in. And I'm very sympathetic to refugees. My dad is a refugee, and I wouldn't be here today if not for the fact that the United States is welcoming to refugees. But I went to one of these briefings put on by the administration and was frankly stunned at the poor vetting process. It is a long process, but contrary to what I at first believed, it is not a very rigorous process. The important thing to me at the end of the day is making sure that we can identify who the person is when they're coming over.
reason: I wonder if the system that we have now has noticeably deteriorated in some way, or is it that we just have greater expectations and maybe greater fear? Would your dad have passed the refugee system that you think should be in place?
Amash: I think part of it is the lack of documentation by a lot of people coming in as refugees. When my dad came in, it was very easy to figure out who he was and who his family was. They had documentation. It was easy to identify them, where they had lived, what they'd been doing. A lot of people coming in today don't have the same kind of documentation.
Some people say you just take the risk and you bring in people, but as a person who also has to ensure the safety of Americans, I have to make sure that we have a system in place where we can know who they are. If they don't have documentation, there needs to be some other process for figuring out who this person is.
reason: The omnibus changed the visa waiver program in ways that affect Syrian Americans. Basically, if you've been to Syria or Iran or Iraq or Sudan in the last five years, even if you come from a visa waiver country, you can't get a visa waiver. You have to actually apply for a visa.
Amash: Well, to be clear, it potentially affects them. It will affect them if Europe changes their laws.
reason: Reciprocates, which we can generally expect but it has not been announced yet. What do you think about that policy?
Amash: I'm opposed to that particular aspect of the new policy, and I'm working on a bill right now to address the issue facing dual nationals. I think it makes sense to have a more rigorous process in place for someone who has visited Syria or Iraq or some other dangerous place within the past few years. It's another matter altogether to say that just because someone was born in another country and that person is now an American citizen, they should be given more scrutiny even if they haven't visited that place in a very long time.
reason: As someone of Syrian extraction and also someone who's a pretty strongly principled kind of intervention skeptic, does Syria pose a challenge to that worldview? I say this as someone who agrees with you on this issue, but sometimes when you do nothing, lots of people that you like get slaughtered.
Amash: That doesn't mean we have to intervene everywhere. If I feel that there is a genocide taking place, that's a legitimate issue to take to the American people to say, "Hey, do you think we should authorize a war for the United States to insert troops into a country?" I don't think we should allow things like the Holocaust to happen.
But we can't intervene in every civil war. And you have to look at whether there's an ongoing conflict where two sides or multiple sides are fighting real battles, or if it's a situation where one side is just going from place to place and wiping everyone out.
To me, the situation over there looks more like a civil war where there's some parity and different groups are holding different areas. So it doesn't seem like a situation where we need to intervene with ground troops. It's something you monitor.
If I felt there was an actual threat to the United States, then I think that's where you take it to the American people and say, "Would you like us to go to war?" We live in a constitutional republic, so I'm supposed to use my judgment. I don't take a poll on every issue and ask people, "What do you think?" But in cases of war, I'd say more than any other subject, you have to go back home and ask the people what they think. I remember two or three years ago, when President Obama was thinking of going into Syria, I did go home and held multiple town halls over a few days. The opposition to the war was overwhelming, and that told me where I needed to be on that issue.
reason: I remember following Rand Paul around Kentucky at the time doing town halls, and it was startling how anti-intervention people were.
Amash: And to be clear, nothing we do will make us 100 percent safe. You could put boots on the ground and wipe out a group and another group springs up, because you can't defeat ideologies with ground troops. There are evils in the world and difficult situations in the world that can't all be resolved, and if you want to live in a society that is free like ours, you have to at some level accept some risks. Otherwise, you just live in a police state.
reason: You've been standing athwart attempts to extend the surveillance state and yelling stop. Tell us a little bit what the hell happened at the end of December.
Amash: What happened was they put together a gigantic bill and decided at the last moment to sneak in a surveillance bill. It's a surveillance bill that they've always presented under the guise of being a cybersecurity bill, but if you talk to experts in this field, they say this isn't going to help cybersecurity. It's primarily going to advance government surveillance of Americans. Under the new cyber bill, basically anything you share with a private company can be shared with the government without any liability to the company. So the company could put out a user agreement saying they're not going to share your information and then go share it with the government, and they're totally immune from liability.
There are people who will tell you false things about how it's not anything other than zeros and ones and that kind of data. That's not true. Under the bill, you can share whole email messages with the government. You can share metadata. You can share text messages. The good-faith standard is so low that they can share it as long as they don't know that it contains personally identifiable information—and the only way you'd know is if you actually looked at everything. So as long as they dump things they don't know, they're good to go.
Sneaking it in at the last minute represents everything that's wrong with Washington. It was over 100 pages long in a 2,000-page bill, and most of my colleagues didn't even know it was in there. I worked hard to spread the message. Maybe some significant portion figured it out before they voted, but certainly at the beginning most of them had no clue.
To give you an example of how people are left out of the loop, I asked the chairman of Homeland Security whether the cyber bill was going to be included in the omnibus. And he didn't know.
reason: And this is how long before it was presented?
Amash: A day or two before it was presented. He was left out of the discussion. He himself had his own version of the bill.
We're asked time and again to vote for things where we're clearly not given enough time to review the legislation. No company would work this way. I have some friends and supporters who own businesses, and sometimes some business owners are very sympathetic to the leadership and the establishment viewpoint on things. And I ask them, "Would you run your business like this?" We passed a bill that was over a trillion dollars, and they gave us less than two days. What business would move forward with a transaction of millions or billions and give the CEO 48 hours or less to review it? No business would work that way.
reason: Are you fatalistic about changing that? Do you think that can be improved?
Amash: Yes. I think it takes the right type of leadership and the right type of speaker. I want to give Paul Ryan a chance to see how he operates with a full year. But something I talked to him about, before he decided to run for speaker, was whether he could transition from a policy person to a process person. They're different types of people.
I think there are really three types of people. There are power people, policy people, and process people. I consider myself probably most strongly a process person. I think of Paul Ryan as a policy person. And then you have power people. I would say John Boehner might fall into that camp.
To be a really good speaker, in my opinion, you have to be a process person. You have to care about giving people time to review legislation. You have to care about allowing amendments to be brought to the floor. You have to be willing to allow things to fail on the floor. You have to be willing to allow things to pass that you don't like. If you do those things, I strongly believe that things will move in a more limited-government direction. You might get bad outcomes in the short run, but you're better able to address those bad outcomes because you get people on the record. People vote and their constituents see how they voted and they see the results.
Right now, at least the way it worked under Boehner while I was here, people in Congress are protected from voting the wrong way. These bills are drawn up precisely to protect them, so they don't have to vote on particular amendments and so they don't have to think through the details. Everything's take-it-or-leave-it, all or nothing. It makes it harder to distinguish among the members of Congress—who's a good congressman and who's a bad congressman—because it's all just a jumble.
I'm not calling for more votes; I think we vote plenty of times. I'm saying that we need more consequential votes. We need more votes on amendments. We need people to be on the record on these things. I believe if you do that, you can actually change the direction of Congress and the direction of our country.
reason: You've been making a few statements here and there about criminal justice reform. I think you were tweeting about the Tamir Rice issue.
Amash: And I'm watching Making a Murderer. I'm not all the way through, but hopefully I will be soon.
Criminal justice reform is a critically important issue, and it cuts across party lines. It's been my sense that this is one area where Republicans have been moving more and more in the right direction. Are they where I think they need to be? No. But I do think things are getting better, and I've found that there are more and more Republicans co-sponsoring legislation, taking votes on issues like marijuana that might not have happened 10 years ago. So I feel good about the direction things are taking. And I've seen reforms happen at the state level, too.
It should be important to Republicans. If Republicans make it a priority, as I think they should, they'll start to win over more and more Democrats. Certainly there are a lot of black Americans who think these issues are critically important and who have felt left behind by both parties. It gives Republicans an opportunity to reach out.
reason: So when Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, are you going to support him?
Amash: [laughs] I'm not going to vote for Hillary Clinton.
reason: Nor am I.
Amash: I have a lot of concerns about Donald Trump. I do not want Hillary Clinton to win. I think she would be the worst president of my lifetime. I think she's much worse than Barack Obama, and President Obama has been a pretty awful president in many ways. I was hopeful that he would actually take steps with respect to civil liberties and wars that would actually reflect what he said were his views. He presented himself as a guy who was going to stop some of the things that were happening under the Bush administration, and he hasn't really taken the steps necessary.
I will do what it takes to make sure that Clinton is not our next president, but, yeah, I'm not going to say who I would vote for on Election Day if Trump were the Republican nominee. I've always been a proud Republican, and I have voted for Republican nominees I didn't always agree with on a whole bunch of issues. But I think we can do better.