Every libertarian knows the script: "Never fall in love with politicians. They will always disappoint you."
This spring in Washington was rough on several political figures' libertarian fan clubs. Start with the second-time's-the-charm effort by House Republicans to, well, not repeal and replace Obamacare exactly, but to tinker around its edges—mostly in the form of reduced burdens on taxpayers and insurance companies.
"The [American Health Care Act] repeals fewer than 10 percent of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act," one prominent pro-market legislator explained. If passed, it "will continue to drive up the cost of health insurance—while bolstering the largest insurance companies—and the modifications contained in the AHCA cannot save it. Many of the AHCA's provisions are poorly conceived or improperly implemented."
Yet that same critic—Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.), a libertarian favorite and key member of the influential House Freedom Caucus—voted for the flawed measure on May 3, even after expressing his "disgust" with the rushed, top-down process that produced it. What gives?
"When deciding whether to support a bill, I ask myself whether the bill improves upon existing law, not whether I would advocate for the policy or program if I were starting with a blank slate," a clearly rattled Amash wrote on his Facebook page. (One of the congressman's many charms is that he explains virtually all of his congressional votes on social media.) "In other words, the proper analysis is not whether it makes the law good but rather whether it makes the law better. In this case, I felt comfortable advancing the bill to the Senate as a marginal improvement to the [Affordable Care Act]."
That wasn't the only clenched-teeth reaction from a Freedom Caucus member voting "yes." "Ultimately," Mark Sanford (R–S.C.) said, "the vote came down to one simple question: Do we kill the bill and stop the debate from advancing to the Senate, or not?"
Such comments suggest that a voting bloc known for its philosophical rigor was also being influenced by some cruder power dynamics. As Caucus leader Mark Meadows (R–N.C.) said just before the 217–213 vote, "When you get a phone call from the president and that's followed up by a phone call from the president, followed up by a phone call from the vice president—it needs to get done." Or, in the typically colorful words of Amash pal and "no" voter Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), "The AHCA is like a kidney stone—the House doesn't care what happens to it, as long as they can pass it."
At press time, the AHCA was languishing in the Senate, and reeling from a post-facto score from the Congressional Budget Office predicting that 23 million fewer Americans would have health insurance if the bill became law. But the GOP-led Congress did manage to obtain President Donald Trump's signature on another piece of legislation this spring: a $1.16 trillion continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded—at slightly higher than pre-existing levels—through the end of the fiscal year.
So a Republican Party that cut its teeth holding the line on spending under President Barack Obama is now increasing spending levels under Trump, while dutifully ignoring the new president's proposals to slash various agency budgets. Tellingly, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former Freedom Caucus member, put his seal of approval on the agreement's inclusion of $93.5 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, a catchall military slush fund outside the already generous appropriations for defense. As a legislator, Mulvaney had long criticized such budgetary sleights of hand.
But wait, there's more! On May 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who sailed through Senate confirmation on a party-line vote, announced the re-escalation of the drug war, instructing federal prosecutors to seek maximum sentencing on drug-related crimes. This prompted many criminal justice reformers to lament anew that some of their usual Senate allies, such as Rand Paul (R–Ky.) and Mike Lee (R–Utah), had rubber-stamped the A.G.'s nomination three months previous.
Paul insists that the move, which had been widely predicted, "was different from what I was led to believe" would happen by Sessions himself.
So what good are all these damn libertarian leaners anyway?
Plenty, actually. Rand Paul has kept Trump's ear on some foreign policy issues, helping to scuttle nominations of interventionist State Department officials such as Elliott Abrams. "If people want to apply a purity test to me, they're more than welcome," he said on the Fox Business Network show Kennedy in February, "but I would suggest that maybe they spend some of their time on the other 99 less libertarian senators."
Amash is the figure most responsible for building the Freedom Caucus into the most fiscally conservative and the most strategically pivotal bloc in Congress. Both Amash and Paul opposed the budget agreement; both haunt their respective chambers at all hours to make sure no terrible surveillance measure gets smuggled through; and both responded to the Sessions outrage by redoubling their efforts against the drug war.
The nearer you get to the actual responsibilities of power, the more you are likely to cut deals, hopefully positioning yourself to do better later. It's not that the process may get ugly; it's that it will, as sure as mushrooms follow rain.
If we want to limit the inherent corruption of politics, let's reduce the inherent power of government. Until then, be at least somewhat thankful that there are any politicians, compromises or no, who largely agree with that project.