Justin Amash Wants To Talk About Process and Love, but His Constituents Want To Talk About Gun Control
Facing his district for the first time since going independent, the libertarian congressman preaches legislative process and constitutional principle to an audience thirsty for gun fixes.
"So please," Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) implored a brewpub audience of 50 constituents in the sleepy town of Hastings on Wednesday afternoon, "respect each other, love each other, and demand that we open up our system of government so that it's available for everyone."
It was the last of the day's five public meet-and-greets—Amash's first back home since declaring independence from the Republican Party on July 4. And as in the previous four, the representative famous for almost never missing votes, and always explaining them on Facebook, hammered away at one civics-nerd point above all. Process matters.
"When you go to Congress, you discover that all decisions are made by three people: the president, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. That's it," Amash lamented. "All of you are essentially disenfranchised in this situation. You elect representatives to represent you, but representatives aren't actually allowed to amend things, aren't allowed to offer ideas. And what ends up happening is you have a system where outcomes are dictated to us rather than discovered through the process."
A broken process means no floor amendments for an entire congressional session—a first. It means disregarding the designs of the Constitution, which as Amash pointed out is a "process document." It means making political competition an ugly grab for punitive power, and it means replacing legislative deliberation with smashmouth scoreboard-politics, as when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) refused to allow a vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during Barack Obama's final year in office. ("I wouldn't have supported that nominee, but he should have been allowed to have had a vote," Amash explained at a Grand Rapids coffee shop in the morning.)
"McConnell, I think, has done a horrible job—I want to use the right adjective, because I don't want to say it's incredible, it's been incredibly horrible," he said. "Shutting things down, controlling it. And yeah, a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives might like the outcomes he's getting, but that's not the way our system's supposed to work! We're supposed to debate ideas and talk about things."
Amash's outspokenness and uncertain political future is drawing a lot of national attention at the moment. George Will devoted his most recent syndicated column to the congressman, the Associated Press sent out a widely picked up article questioning the incumbent's re-election prospects, and the third-party presidential rumors continue to swirl. (At his fourth stop of the day, Amash ribbed political journalists for allegedly being so White House–focused that they have failed to adequately convey that, yes, he is running for Congress. He then appended his longstanding mantra that he doesn't rule anything out, etc.)
But of all his near-term uphill battles, getting voters, let alone journalists, to feel a sense of urgency about the degradations of the legislative process is right up there.
"I think you need to start voting on the basis of process," Amash maintained at a Grand Rapids brewpub (the city does like its beer). "It should be actually high on your list. Right now it's not even on the list. Nobody asks about that. You might ask about guns, you might ask about immigration, you might ask about a whole host of issues, but nobody is asking about the process of legislating, and that's what we should really put highest on our list—in my opinion, the highest thing, because if you have a bad process the whole system doesn't function."
While his audiences were frequently receptive to the pitch, asking on several occasions what they can tangibly do about this process business, one issue above all illustrated the gap between Amash's critique of results-oriented policymaking and the public's perennial appetite to do something about an issue: guns.
"So I know how you feel about the Second Amendment" came the second constituent question of the day, "but…" Thus was established a pattern.
At every stop, usually for several consecutive questions on end, Amash received anguished and sometimes angry cross-examinations from shaky-voiced teachers, fearful moms, amateur Federalist Papers historians, and even one survivor of a mass shooting event. If you have ever wondered what it would be like for a libertarian to be grilled about every single issue that comes up after a mass gun killing—universal background checks, "weapons of war," New Zealand's gun buybacks, interpretations of "well regulated Militia," the anti-tyranny component of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association's political influence, bans on public health research, the gun show loophole, red flag laws, gun licenses, bump stocks, you name it—that's what went down in West Michigan on Wednesday.
"I read an article in The New York Times that was dated August 9 that really shocked me," came the second question at Amash's second event, held at Grand Rapids' Common Ground coffee shop and feeling like anything but. "There are 15 million military-style weapons in the hands of Americans….What do you propose, what change can we make, to stop the sale of military-style weapons, and get most of those 15 million military-style weapons…in the hands of Americans back so that we won't have these mass murders anymore?"
The next 25 minutes was a remarkable gun-policy back and forth, with Amash arguing, among other things, that "military-style" is an amorphous definition, that most mass shootings are carried out with handguns, that red flag laws pose due-process concerns, that public opinion on the issue comes with a "knowledge problem" about such things as the definition of the word "semiautomatic," that guns and gun rights are broadly and uniquely popular in America, that overall gun violence is down significantly over the past few decades, that people should not live their lives in fear of rare events, that ambulance-chasing legislation frequently abridges civil liberties, and that most policy proposals in the wake of mass shootings would not have impeded the shooter if retroactively applied.
"We have to be really careful about the law," he cautioned. "Sometimes we pass laws because they make us feel good, but they didn't do anything. And I'm afraid that a lot of the proposals we have now are the kind of things that would make us feel good but not actually resolve the problems. And some of the problems cannot be totally resolved. You can't completely eliminate hate and violence."
The audience was not satisfied with that answer.
"You keep saying, 'This isn't going to work, this isn't going to work, this isn't going to work,'" charged one man. But "if we didn't have any laws governing the way in which automobile are handled, you would have a lot higher automobile fatality and accident rates then we have now. We have those laws. Do they work perfectly? No, they don't work [perfectly], but at least we tried; we did something. And I'm not hearing anything that we need to do from you."
Amash's bottom line: "Our rights should not be predicated on very rare situations."
If this had been, say, 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson instead of potential 2020 nominee Justin Amash, this exchange might have last three minutes instead of 25 and featured a lot of awkward hemming and hawing. Amash is not defensive about his beliefs in the face of popular pressure, and indeed seems to relish the opportunity to explain his lonely positions, while also taking pains to bracket the conversation with messages of mutual tolerance, empathy, non-demonization, and straight-up "love." It can make for compelling human interaction. But in our polarized and occasionally poisonous political atmosphere, can it sell?
Amash's pitch, and bet, is that the approach of independent thinking and institutional vigor can prove to be an antidote to the ugly polarization that's taking over our politics. Through—what else?—process.
"Congress is increasingly operating differently for the way our system was intentionally created and I think that is very dangerous," he concluded at Common Ground. "We will start to look more and more like other countries. Already I see the way people talk about each other is starting to represent the sectarian sort of disputes in other parts of the world, even like parts of the Middle East, where you might have Shia and Sunni and others. Where everything becomes like the lesser of two evils. 'Well, our guy is bad, but their guy is worse, so we'll support our guy to stop their guy…'
"If we follow this attitude that process doesn't matter, all that matters is obtaining the outcome we want. We see an outcome, we go try to grab it. That is what happens in the worst parts of the world….In those countries when they see an outcome they want, they just grab it. The people with the greatest numbers, they're like, 'We have more numbers, we're grabbing it.' Then the other people fight them for power, and then when those people get the numbers, they're like, 'Now we're going to grab what we want.'
"We can't operate that way. We have to operate in a deliberate fashion. Open it up, I promise more of your ideas will get debated on the House floor. I'm not necessarily going to agree with you on every position, as you know from this event here….But I promise you, you will have a better outcome, generally. You will have a better process."