For decades, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) served as the libertarian conscience of Congress. After 12 terms stretching across four decades and three runs for president, Paul chose to retire in January. Now a handful of Republican congressmen are stepping into the breach. Endorsed by Dr. No himself and the Paul-inspired Young Americans for Liberty, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, Ted Yoho, and Kerry Bentivolio are headed to Washington (or back, in the case of second-termer Amash), where they say they’ll defend personal freedom and fiscal responsibility. reason interviewed them in December about their governing philosophies, the state of Congress, and whether they seek to be national leaders for a post-Paul liberty movement.
Justin Amash: Bringing the liberty perspective to light.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) enters his second term in Congress as the favorite surviving congressman of the “liberty movement” that arose around Ron Paul. Amash, 32, came to Washington in 2011 after a single term in the Michigan state legislature, where he brought a unique perspective informed by Frederic Bastiat and F.A. Hayek and became known as probably the first American legislator to explain all his votes on Facebook. In December, the second-generation American of Palestinian descent made headlines when the House Republican leadership booted him from his seat on the Budget Committee. Amash and his fans say he was rebuked for being more fiscally conservative than his colleagues, refusing to vote for bills he thought would bust the budget even if that meant defying GOP marching orders. Other congressmen anonymously told the press that it was because Amash and three other demoted colleagues were uncollegial “assholes.”
reason: So, are you an asshole?
Rep. Justin Amash: I’ve never been aggressive toward colleagues in any way, never been rude to anyone here. But I do explain my votes. And if that differs from the direction leadership wants us to go in, they take offense. Leadership doesn’t want someone out there explaining that a particular deal increases debt by $100 billion.
I think leadership has reverted to a smear campaign, calling us “assholes” for the purpose of misleading the media into thinking there is some overwhelming resentment toward us, when it’s not true. The resentment is toward leadership. I’ve heard from dozens of colleagues who are behind us 100 percent, and not just conservatives or libertarians. I was back home this weekend and I’ve never seen so much support for what I’m doing and so much anger directed toward [Republican House Speaker John] Boehner, not just for what he’s doing to me but for his leadership.
I’m a pretty mild-mannered person. I’ve been a mild-mannered congressman and state legislator. I don’t go out and make a lot of noise. When I was a state legislator, I could go and explain my votes on Facebook and leadership would give me leeway to do so without coming after me. Now they have made it clear a different paradigm exists here. I have to evolve the way I operate as well. I think it’s important for me to be more vocal about the issues and be more clear about problems going on in Congress and not really take a back seat like I’ve been taking up to now.
reason: What is so important about those committee assignments?
Amash: When we are working on budget deals it’s important to have liberty-minded people who can press leadership and press the chairman from a more pro-liberty perspective. That’s certainly happened in the last year on the budget committee. A number of us pressed [Rep. Paul] Ryan on the budget and it ended up better than it would have been. On things like military spending, for example, it’s important to have people on the Budget Committee willing to talk to Democrats and negotiate on that issue because the message we get from leadership is that that’s off the table.
reason: Do you see any hope for changing that attitude on military spending in the Republican Party?
Amash: New members have a different take on it than the more senior members. We can’t count on all the new members to be open to compromise on military spending, but there is a much higher percentage among [last term’s] freshmen and the incoming class as well.
We are just a reflection on what’s going on back home, which is that voters are telling us we need to be more cautious about our foreign engagements, that we should be using our armed forces for defense and not to impose our will on the rest of the world, that we are putting ourselves at risk continuing the strategy we are engaged in. We hear a lot from military families telling us please bring our troops home, we are putting lives at risk without getting the results we’ve been promised and with no clear goals.
reason: Were you worried your redistricting might prevent you from getting back to Congress?
Amash: I was never concerned about losing. I knew redistricting would make my district a little more challenging in terms of logistics. It’s a larger district now and I’m traveling to areas I hadn’t spent lots of time in before. The biggest challenge was I had an opponent [Steve Pestka] who was self-funding and outspent me about two to one by the end of the race. But we still won with a healthy margin. I outperformed both Mitt Romney and [Republican Senate candidate] Pete Hoekstra in my district.
I’m completely transparent which is extremely helpful; everyone knows exactly why I vote the way I do. I think it’s more important that my philosophy is just common sense. When I go back home people don’t find my views extreme, they find the views of Congress in general extreme. That’s why Congress has a 10 percent approval rating; so many members of Congress are completely detached from the real world. People find it extreme not to balance the budget for 30 years, not to include military spending as part of negotiations. They don’t find it extreme to want to balance the budget in the near future or to want to work with Democrats on things like military spending. If my colleagues realized that common-sense approach works back home, more would take it. They are caught up in this whole D.C. universe where they are basically catering to lobbyists and not their constituency.
reason: Do you see yourself in a national liberty-movement leadership role?
Amash: I do view my role as important in bringing the liberty perspective to light. I am chairman of the House Liberty Caucus and we are trying to use that as a tool for getting some of these ideas out to our colleagues and constituents across the country.
My constituents are all very concerned about their liberty, so I don’t see the roles [of being a national leader and a local representative] as incompatible. It’s the same role. I was elected to Congress to follow the Constitution and defend my constituents’ economic freedom and individual liberty.