Rep. Justin Amash: The Two-Party System Needs to Die

The libertarian congressman says the internet is poised to destroy politics as we know it.


"Hopefully, over time, [the] two parties start to fall apart," says Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) in an interview with Reason recorded last week at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas. "I can go straight to Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere and tell people exactly what I stand for."

First elected in 2010, the libertarian congressman helped co-found the influential House Freedom Caucus, sponsored bills to cut spending and defang the National Security Agency, and took an active role in the successful effort to depose John Boehner as house majority leader.

A critic of executive power and champion of constitutionalism, the Grand Rapids native is a thorn in the side of Donald Trump, serving as one of only two GOP co-sponsors of a bill calling for an independent, investigative commission into the president's Russia-related behavior. He frequently calls out the administration on social media, and is on the receiving end of a White House call to get primaried.

This interview was recorded on July 21, 2017. A transcript is below.

Cameras by Justin Monticello and Meredith Bragg; edited by Mark McDaniel. Graphics by Bragg.

Music: "Calling (Instrumental)" by Dexter Britain ( Creative Commons.

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This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Matt Welch: We're recording this on Friday afternoon. A lot of stuff has happened in the last 36 hours in Washington having to do with President Donald Trump. He gave an interview with The New York Times in which he said, if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn't hire Jeff Sessions, because Jeff Sessions recused himself of Russian investigations, he called into question the integrity of a lot of people in the Justice Department, kicked the tires on potential pardons for his kids or other people in the administration, and generally is starting to put pressure on the special counsel, Robert Mueller, "Don't get too far out of your lanes" and this type of stuff.

As someone who co-sponsored one of the two Republican … Co-sponsors, if I know this right, of a bill in Congress to investigate the or set up a special commission, what's your general reaction to this behavior over the last 36 hours?

Justin Amash: It's typical, it's not anything new. So it didn't surprise me, and I think that the President doesn't really understand how the Justice Department works, and that he really needs to keep some distance from these investigations. But, it's Donald Trump, and he's gonna do what he's gonna do.

Welch: What if he fires Robert Mueller? Is that a constitutional crisis? You study the Constitution more than most of us sleep or breathe. When does it become a constitutional crisis? Is that the point … If he pre-pardons somebody close to him, is that a constitutional crisis?

Amash: I don't know the history on pardons, and whether that would be a major problem constitutionally, but the president has a lot of authority to fire people within the executive branch. So, setting aside the constitutional concerns, because I think you can at least make some arguments, I don't know whether they hold water … Setting aside the constitutional concerns, there are ethical concerns, there are rule of law concerns, so we want to make sure that when a president is in the White House that he's living up to all of the ethical standards, that he is allowing the system of justice to work itself out the way it's supposed to work without interference. And there are those concerns. So I don't want to go the constitutional route yet on this kind of thing, but certainly there are rule of law and ethics concerns.

Welch: If he does do something like that, does that kick in a remedy as far as you're concerned? Should there be some action that hasn't been taken so far taken as a result of that?

Amash: Well, there are always political consequences. So polling numbers will change if people think that the president can't be trusted. There are those political realities, and you'll have more and more Republicans who are uncomfortable with the way the White House is operating. So, I think over time, that's probably what will have the biggest impact here. Whether it will impact the president's behavior over the next few years, I don't know. But it might have an impact over the next election cycle.

Welch: You have one of the great Twitter feeds out there in Congress, and a week or two ago you tweeted something along the lines of, "Having principles is better than just resorting to 'what-aboutism' all the time." Do you see a lot of what-aboutism happening from your caucus these days when it comes to treating with and reacting to the actions of President Trump?

Amash: Yeah, it's not just from Republicans in Congress, Democrats in Congress do this too, and so does the general public. I think we should be concerned about hypocrisy, where one side is doing something we think it's okay, and then the other side does something and we think it's bad. So there are reasonable concerns about hypocrisy, but that doesn't mean that every time President Trump or Republicans do something we should just say, "Well, the Democrats did the same thing." Because there's no accountability in that.

At some point, people have to decide to make the change themselves. They can't always blame the other side and say, "Well the other side did the same thing." That's how you get these third-world despotic systems, where everyone says, "Well, the other side does it, so we just want our strong man to beat up on them when he's in power." And you see that all around the world, Venezuela and other places, where people's rights are restricted on the basis of, "Our guy is in power now, we should do the same thing that they did to us."

Welch: Do you feel like the Republican Caucus, in particular, has been … As someone, you're a critic of congressional inaction, and abdicating its responsibility, do you feel like Congress has been doing well in its oversight responsibility of the executive branch under President Trump, not so well, just right … What's your assessment of that so far?

Amash: Not so well. The number of committee hearings has dropped significantly. When you had the Obama Administration in charge, you had a lot of Republicans making sure that we were investigating every little detail, and now, you don't have that as much. And you certainly have many members who are concerned about what's going on, but you don't have it to the same degree. And that's not to say that in any particular situation the president is necessarily doing something wrong, but we always have to stay on top of things as a congress, that's part of our role, to have oversight. And I think it's good for everyone if we oversee the executive branch and find that nothing was wrong in a particular situation, that's better for everyone. It's better for Republicans, it's better for Democrats, it's better for the country.

Welch: Let's talk a little bit about other ways that Congress abdicates its responsibility. This week, if I'm not mistaken, the authorization for use of military force was in play as part of the Defense Authorization Act, and it kind of vanished overnight. What happened there, what's the status of that?

Amash: Yeah, it was in a Defense Appropriations Bill, and it was seemingly stripped out. So, the idea was to restrict the government from using that old authorization for use of military force on whatever they want today. So, there is a lot of pressure in Congress, on leadership, to do something new, to put a new authorization in place if we want to go after ISIS. If we want to do things in Syria, and Yemen and other places, there should be a new authorization. It doesn't make sense now, so many years later, a decade and a half later, to be using the same authorization as though we are fighting the same war. It's a different group of actors, the people we're fighting today aren't the same people who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.

So, if we want to continue that fight, let's get a new authorization with the appropriate limitations. And I think that there should always be a time limitation on authorizations, so there should be a requirement that they have to be reauthorized at some point. That doesn't mean you're telling the enemy when the war is gonna end, it just means that Congress has to do its job and say, "If this battle's continuing, we have to have another authorization."

Welch: Was this as close as we've come since 2001 to actually re-upping and requiring the re-uppage of the authorization of use of military force, and what happened to it? What was the process by which in vanished?

Amash: Yeah, it was the closest we've been. Allegedly, it was allowed on there by the chairman of the committee without the blessing of Republican leadership, without the blessing of the White House. And so, I think, whether it was the White House or House leaders, they came in and said, "We're stripping this out. We don't think this is the appropriate venue." And my understanding is they're putting a different provision in there, in the bill, so that we can do a watered down version of what was there from Representative Lee.

Welch: Let's talk more about Congress here. Obviously, Obamacare repeal, replace, or whatever we're calling it, revamp, retooling, and the failure thereof has been on everyone's lips. You were part of both the original House who defeated that bill, and then also the narrow victory of it's replacement in changes of some of the language of it. First, before anything else, the bill that didn't get put to floor, the motion to proceed failed. Mike Lee and others, and Rand Paul blocked that bill. If it had been passed and gotten to you, back, would you have voted yes or no?

Amash: I didn't read it, so-

Welch: reading the bills-

Amash: So I can't tell you what I would have done. There were a lot of things I heard about that were concerning, but I decided that it wasn't in my interest to read it at this point, because I've got a lot of other things on my plate, and I wasn't sure the Senate was gonna get it through anyways. So if I start reading that bill and then it doesn't pass, I've gotta read a whole nother bill.

Welch: Is it your understanding that there would have been, and there would be in the future in case anything passes, which I don't think is particularly likely, that there would be a conference committee, and there would be actual negotiations there, or would it be kind of an up or down, take it or leave it situation?

Amash: It's not clear. House Freedom Caucus members have called for a conference committee, because we suspect that whatever comes out of the Senate will be worse than what came out of the House. So, we think it would be a good idea to have a conference committee, but I'm not 100% sure. I don't know what's going to come out of the Senate at this point, if anything. And whether we have an up or down vote or a conference committee, that's almost for sure gonna be a political decision by leadership, it's not gonna be based on policy.

Welch: And just to display my own parliamentary ignorance here, if the House Freedom Caucus were to say, "We're gonna hold our breath and turn blue in the face unless we get a conference committee," do they have that power?

Amash: I think we can find some procedural tools to block it if we have to. It'll be challenging, but we can talk to the parliamentarian and figure out a way to stop something bad from passing through the House. And as you know, the House version of the bill wasn't very good in itself. That bill had plenty of problems. But, I thought it was marginally better than Obamacare, very marginally. So, if the Senate bill is any worse than the House bill, it's in trouble.

Welch: And it's marginally better, and also passed by a margin, passed by four votes.

Amash: Yeah, a slim margin.

Welch: Which is two people who can flip. At the time, I was critical of the House Freedom Caucus, and I know some of the people who work for the leadership there are unhappy with the way that I characterized the turning of events there. In shorthand TV, you say things like, "Donald Trump put a lot of pressure on Mark Meadows, and they changed their mind." They say that's overly simplistic. So, can you correct my misapprehension? Mark Meadows, the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, has had quotes along the lines of, "Hey, when the president calls you, and then the vice president calls you and says 'Get a bill done,' you're gonna work to get a bill done." And I take that, perhaps naively, as maybe the president is putting a lot of pressure on people who don't like to feel pressure, and that's affecting their moods. Am I being too cruel in my assessment here?

Amash: Mark Meadows is a southern gentleman, and he tries to present things in a way that, I think, are not going to be too upsetting to the White House or to leadership. He's doing his job as the chairman, of trying to work with everyone. I think that it wasn't pressure from the White House or pressure from leadership, it was that we had put together an amendment that we thought would marginally improve the bill, make it better than Obamacare. And when that was sufficiently supported, we had the group move in that direction, and move onboard with that amendment. But it wasn't pressure from the White House or leadership.

Welch: Your friend, Thomas Massie, who is just like you except even more, described all of this as the equivalent of some kind of hot potato … Everyone knew that the next guy was going to be the one to block this from happening. How do you respond to that kind of characterization, of a bill that not many actual policy analysts from the libertarian or conservative point of view, basically one, liked it … It's hysterically and historically unpopular. Was there a feeling … And actually, a lot of your colleagues like Mark Sanford, when talking about why he voted yes, was like, "Well, let's keep the discussion going." Which is almost saying, "I don't want it to stop on my watch. Let's have conversations later." Was there an element to, let's just kind of keep putting off D-Day on this thing?

Amash: For some people I think that was true, that they wanted to just move it along. From my perspective, when you look at a piece of legislation, you see, "Does it move us marginally in the right direction?" And if it does, you vote for it. The other stuff is very hard to predict, all of the long-term strategies, is it gonna come back, how is it gonna look … So you have to look at that piece of legislation and really focus on, "Does it improve things marginally?" And I thought it did. And I agree with your assessment and others' assessment that it's not a good piece of legislation, just like Obamacare is terrible. But, if it's marginally better than Obamacare, that's what you do.

And, every member of Congress does that. Even the people who were concerned about this piece of legislation, on other bills, they'll tell you, "Oh, we're moving it along marginally," so they'll support those bills in all sorts of other areas that we deal with.

Welch: There's a feeling that … What were people doing from 2010 to 2017? There's a lot of politics around Obamacare, some very successful politics I might add. Is it that people weren't doing the policy work and the actual harder political work of working with your own colleagues from your own party, and hashing out the huge chasm between the Rand Pauls and Susan Collinses of the world … What happened? Why was this such a kind of, "Oh, hey, it's November 9th, 2016, what are we gonna do about this thing that we've been talking about for six years?"

Amash: There was a lot of policy work. There were a lot of proposals out there, a lot of ideas, and some of those were incorporated into the bill. I think Republicans made a strategic mistake years ago when they started talking about repeal and replace, and keeping particular provisions from Obamacare. If you start to talk about keeping this provision or that provision, you end up having to keep a whole bunch of other stuff, or just restructuring it in a way that essentially keeps the same bill in place.

So, I always thought it was a mistake to talk about keeping the particular preexisting conditions provisions, or the particular provisions on community ratings or regulations. There are ways to address those concerns, for people who have preexisting conditions. There are ways to address that. But to say that you're going to keep it the way it is, that was a mistake.

So, when the bill came to the floor, when we had this new bill come to the floor, it was inevitable that it was going to keep a lot of Obamacare in place, because too many promises were made by Republicans. And I think a lot of Republicans also didn't think that we would have the White House, and didn't see an opportunity that would come along in the near future to repeal Obamacare. So, they made these promises that they're going to repeal it, and they made other promises that they're gonna keep parts of it if push comes to shove. And now, they're in this dilemma, where they want to keep parts of it, but keeping parts of it means essentially keeping most of Obamacare in place. And their promise to repeal has been shown to be not a true promise, not something that they ever intended to really follow through on.

Welch: Jeff Sessions, Attorney General-

Amash: And to be clear, I want to repeal Obamacare and still support a full repeal of Obamacare. I think we should start over, we should repeal Obamacare, and this is something that should be handled at the state level.

Welch: Jeff Sessions, Attorney General this week, expanded a rollback, very modest reforms that had been made under Eric Holder about civil asset forfeiture, which is legalized theft by the cops, to put my spin on it at least. You've been a big critic of that, I think you have a bill introduced to do something about that. Talk a little bit about, first your reaction to that, and what are the prospects that Congress will react to what is a very unpopular practice. To the extent that Americans know about this, they hate it, and rightfully so. Is there actual possibility for Congress to act in a corrective way to this?

Amash: Yeah, so Senator Paul has a bill right now … I'm working on something that is more comprehensive. His bill reforms civil asset forfeiture in a way that I think is positive and moves us in the right direction, but I'd like to see something more comprehensive. I'd like to wipe out civil asset forfeiture at the federal level and at the state level. So, my office is currently drafting legislation. It's taking awhile, because there's a lot of parts of the code that you have to work through. So, we're gonna get that legislation out, hopefully in the near future.

But, there's a lot of public support for getting rid of civil asset forfeiture. It's unconstitutional. It's the idea that the government can come in and take your property without due process. And a lot of people, I think, were unaware of it and are just starting to learn about it, people on the left and the right. There are people on the left who don't like the Trump Administration, so now they're hearing about it all of a sudden. But actually, this was the policy under Democratic presidents as well.

Welch: Loretta Lynch was particularly fond of the practice.

Amash: Yeah, Loretta Lynch loved the idea of civil asset forfeiture, and I criticized her for that on Twitter and elsewhere in the past. So, this is a bipartisan issue, it's something that all Americans should be concerned about. We believe in due process in this country, we believe that your property shouldn't be taken away without some kind of criminal conviction, and right now the practice in this country is to allow the government to take your stuff without convicting you of anything, and in fact, without even charging you with a crime. So it's pretty outrageous, and I think most conservative and libertarian commentators out there are saying this, and pointing it out to people. So, I think we'll have some momentum on this.

Welch: So, you're gonna wipe it out at the state level too, you're gonna make it a federal crime to do this?

Amash: Well, there's a 14th Amendment that protects due process at the state level. It doesn't allow the state to do these kinds of things either. So, our constitution allows us to draft legislation at the federal level that would restrict the states' ability to violate people's due process.

Welch: What else have you seen from Attorney General Sessions that has set off your alarm bells?

Amash: Everything. Whether it's indefinite detention … There's a whole host of things out there. The drug war, his belief that we should continue to prosecute people for minor drug offenses … But at the same time, those are things that Congress has a duty to change. So if we don't like the way the law is being enforced, if we think that Jeff Sessions should spend his time on more important matters, then we have a responsibility to change the law. So, let's change the law. Let's change the law on civil asset forfeiture. Let's change the law on sentencing. Let's change the law on indefinite detention. Let's change all of these laws, and then there's no excuse for the attorney general to do the wrong thing.

Welch: EXIM Bank. Listen, we've been talking about criminal justice reform for three or four years, and a lot of surveillance, post-Snowden revelation reform, and all these kinds of things. EXIM Bank was euthanized for like a week and half at some point, and it seems to be rising up. Talk to me, specifically, about what you're trying to do with murdering that crony capitalist thing in it's sleep one more time, but why can't Republicans do even Republican things right?

Amash: I've been asking myself that question for a long time. But the Export Import Bank is a no-brainer. It's a corporate welfare bank. We should do away with it. I've had legislation over the past couple terms to get rid of the Export Import Bank, to phase it out, so it's actually a pretty modest piece of legislation. It gives them a little bit of time to phase things out. But the Export Import Bank should go away. We shouldn't be financing other countries to purchase stuff from big corporations in the United States. That's just a transfer of wealth from everyday Americans to these big companies. And they'll say to you that, "Oh, it doesn't cost anything," but taxpayers are on the hook. So if you used normal accounting principles, you'd see that taxpayers are on the hook for the liability here and we have a major problem that has to be addressed, so let's get rid of it.

And in many ways, it's a symbol of other types of corporate welfare at the federal level, and at the state level. So let's get rid of it, because I think it's a pretty easy target. It's a target that's right in front of us, and they don't have the number of board members necessary right now to operate, it hasn't been operating really the way it's traditionally operated for the last two years because of the lack of board members, and the world hasn't fallen apart. Boeing still exists, all these other companies are still doing just fine. So we can do away with it, and help out regular Americans.

They'll tell you, as well, that small businesses benefit from this, but actually, it's a very small percentage of businesses that benefit from this. So we're talking about a fraction of a percent. And all of these people are essentially paying taxes, whether it's small businesses or individuals, are paying taxes to help support something like the Export Import Bank, but very few get any benefits from it.

Welch: Starting with Ron Paul's run for presidency, which I think helped at least partially inspire you, and the Tea Party Movement of 2009 and 2010, there was this creation out of the ether of a Liberty Movement, and it felt like there was some momentum going in this direction on the EXIM Bank and other things that we've talked about elsewhere. And now, we have a president and a movement around him that's pretty nationalist, pretty populist, which is not necessarily in a very libertarian direction, although there are big exceptions on regulation. And then on the left, it's just going straight Bernie Sanders here on economic policy, which is very hostile to a lot of issues of economic freedom. What happened to the Liberty Movement, or are we thinking too much in terms of high profile national politics?

Amash: Well, there's always been a strain of nationalism within parts of the Liberty Movement. There was, in some sense, an alliance between libertarians and some people who had more nationalistic views, whether it's on economics or other issues, against the establishment. So they had allied themselves against the establishment. And now that you have President Trump, who's very clearly in one of the camps there, many people who were part of the Liberty Movement, but were more on the nationalistic side, now don't want anything to do with the libertarian part of that movement. I think that's caused some friction, and maybe it's time for people in the Liberty Movement to rethink some of those alliances, think about some of the principles that we hold. We believe in free markets, we believe in people being allowed to trade and live with whoever they like, and we don't need the sort of nationalistic side of it undermining those principles. Because they're in conflict.

And if you look back on people like von Mises, or Hayek, or others, they spoke very negatively about this nationalist strain. They didn't like the idea of nationalism in a country. They thought it was a very bad idea, and dangerous to liberty.

Welch: On your Twitter feed, you have pinned a George Washington quote warning about parties and factions. I've seen, over the last month, you've had events with a couple of high-profile Democrats and libertarians ones to be sure, Jared Polis and Beto O'Rourke … What are you doing? Are you going rogue? What are you doing here?

Amash: I think the parties are a problem. That became more clear to me when I entered Congress, and now I've been in Congress for a few years. I can see that a lot of the inability to move forward on more libertarian ideas is because we have this two-party system that really controls all of the levers. And you have Republican leadership that basically decides all of the outcomes in advance, and doesn't allow issues to be debated on the floor. And I believe that a lot of these libertarian views would be successful in a floor vote if they were allowed to be debated, but we don't have that opportunity under this leadership team, and you're not going to get that opportunity under Democratic leadership.

So it's not that the parties are problematic because bipartisanship is a cure-all and is the greatest thing in the world, there's a lot of bad things that happen through bipartisanship. In fact, many of the worst pieces of legislation pass with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. So it's not a call for bipartisanship, it's a call for non-partisanship. I think that we need to move away from this idea that you just have two parties who are at war with each other, and one party is good and the other party is evil, because that leads to all sorts of bad outcomes. You get 'End justifies the means' thinking in just about everything, and liberty doesn't really have an opportunity to flourish in that sort of environment.

Welch: So, what do you do? I mean, you can nonpartisan your own brain, but you're still a Republican, and the system is still like this. What can you do, to further that kind of goal or ethos?

Amash: Well, I'll keep speaking about it, for one thing. I speak to young people all the time and try to encourage them not to be beholden to these two parties. They don't have to be Republican or Democrat, they can be something else. Right now, I would say that the largest group out there are independent people, people who aren't aligned with one of the two parties. So, we need to make sure that the next generation is thinking about this, and hopefully, over time, these two parties start to fall apart. They're getting smaller each year, which is why, I think, the partisan rhetoric is getting elevated, because they're actually smaller and smaller each year, and they're becoming more extreme.

Welch: Just to make sure you know what you just said, you're a Republican advocating for the Republican Party to fall apart.

Amash: Well, I think, over time, that's what has to happen. I think both parties, not just the Republican Party, I think the Democratic Party as well. I don't think that in the modern era you need this sort of institutionalized party system to run for office. Back when you didn't have an internet, it made more sense. People didn't even know who they were voting for, they didn't meet the people, they couldn't hear about the particular individual's views, so they had to depend on the party system to tell them who to vote for. And in this day and age, you don't need that. I can go straight to Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere, and tell people exactly what I stand for. And young people, I think, understand that better than our generation and older generations. So, I think there's an opportunity to really have a paradigm shift here, but it might not happen in the near future. It might be the next generation that has to do that.

Welch: All right, well we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.

Amash: Thanks.

Welch: For Reason, I am Matt Welch.