Rep. Justin Amash on Trump, Ryan, and the 'Stupidity' of How the Government Spends Your Money
The firebrand Michigan congressman unloads on the GOP leadership's unwillingness to shrink government's size, scope, and spending.
Since arriving in Washington in 2011, Justin Amash has cast more consistently libertarian votes than any other member of Congress. A lawyer by training, the 37-year-old Michigan Republican is an outspoken defender of due process, civil liberties, and defendants' rights. He is also resolutely non-interventionist and friendly toward immigrants. Outspoken in his principles, he rarely misses an opportunity to excoriate his GOP colleagues when they fail to live up to the party's limited-government rhetoric.
"There is such a level of stupidity right now in the way we spend money," says Amash, an opponent of ever-increasing Pentagon budgets and adventurism overseas. He is also a fierce critic of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.): "The speaker has not been protecting the institution. You need a speaker in there who is an institutionalist, who cares about the institution first, who is not a partisan." Instead, Amash tells Reason's Nick Gillespie, Ryan is protecting individual members from having to cast votes for which they might be held responsible. "Let Republicans and Democrats and others offer their amendments, and let's have votes on all sorts of things, substantive things, not just post offices like they do now."
He is also fed up with Republican scapegoating of immigrants and refugees. "My parents are immigrants," he explains. "My dad's a Palestinian refugee. I think that a lot of his experience rubbed off on me. That he came from a place where he had no rights. He came here as a refugee. He told me all the time how wonderful it was to be in this country. How blessed we were to have been born in this country. That we have an opportunity here."
Amash is known for explaining each of his votes on Facebook and for maintaining a lively Twitter feed, where he excoriates Democrats and Republicans whenever they seek to expand the size, scope, and spending of the federal government.
"The omnibus is one of the worst—and most costly—pieces of legislation ever to become law. Period. That's why I voted no," Amash tweeted after his congressional colleagues passed a 2,300-page bill they clearly had not read.
This interview was conducted at Reason Weekend, our annual donor event, which was held this year in West Palm Beach, Florida.
NOTE: Podcast version contains full interview and audience Q&A. Run time 1 hour.
Cameras by Jim Epstein and Meredith Bragg. Edited by Alexis Garcia.
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THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. PLEASE CHECK QUOTATIONS AGAINST AUDIO FOR ACCURACY.
Nick Gillespie: Over the past couple of months, Congress has passed a budget deal that increases spending by about $300 billion dollars. It lifted the last of the budget caps from 2011, reauthorized domestic surveillance. The House overwhelming passed a sex trafficking bill that goes directly— It'll do less about sex trafficking, but it will open a lot of online speech to government regulation, which it had protected. And my first question, then, to you is remind us why anyone should vote Republican.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan): First, The Two Parties Must Die is going to be the name of our album, the boy band.
Gillespie: Yes, Amash and Gillespie. It will be like bookends.
Amash: Two Parties Must Die. Why should we vote Republican? Well, because I'm a Republican, so people in my district should vote Republican. But the Republican Party hasn't given people very many reasons to vote Republican. The Democratic Party hasn't given people reasons to vote for Democrats. I think the main reason that people might vote Republican right now is because it's a two-party system, really. I think you have efforts by the Libertarian Party and some other parties. It hasn't really reached beyond, say, 5 percent, 10 percent in most areas.
Gillespie: You're being very generous. Can I ask—
Amash: Part of that is because the system is, in many respects, rigged to prevent a third party from rising up. We have a system that's designed to benefit these parties. The rules are designed to benefit the parties. In the state of Michigan we have the straight-ticket voting where people, basically, are incentivized to vote Republican or Democrat at the top of the ticket, and just walk out of the polling booth. You'd have to change some of the rules, and I think that you have to present alternatives that are broadly appealing. I do think there is a libertarian alternative that is broadly appealing and can be presented.
Gillespie: One of the reasons, I think, there's a sociological reason why the libertarian movement, small l, and Republicans kind of come together. Because Republican rhetoric, at least from Barry Goldwater on through Reagan and to the present day, is often very libertarian. It's about limiting government, it's about maximizing individual liberty. It's about cutting spending and being fiscally responsible. What can be done to pull the Republican Party to at least live up to some of its rhetoric?
Amash: You have to elect the right people. I think people at home keep falling for the same garbage. Now there's some movement within the Republican Party toward nationalism and protectionism. If that's what the party becomes about, then that's a very different sort of Republican Party. I'm not sure that that coalition can hold together.
Gillespie: You also represent— What's interesting about that is you're from Michigan. You represent Grand Rapids, among other parts of Michigan. This is an industrial part of the country that went for Trump. They helped make Trump president, partly based on that populist, nationalist, restrictionist, protectionist appeal. Are you crazy? Are you facing a backlash among your constituents for saying, "No, free trade is still a good thing?"
Amash: No, not in my area. Now, in other parts of Michigan that's true. We can get into Michigan politics and see how the state—
Gillespie: I would rather not.
Amash: —and see how the state breaks down, go blue. In my part of Michigan, in the western part of Michigan, actually, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were less popular than their counterparts in the previous election. Donald Trump did worse than Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton did worse than Barack Obama. Which actually shows that there is a desire for something else. I did much better than Donald Trump did in my district, and he got clobbered in the city of Grand Rapids, 63 to 30.
I think there is a desire for something else. I think the vast majority of Americans are for that something else. What you have right now are two parties that are relatively small and weak, and, actually the reason they are so partisan right now is because they are small and weak. When you get parties that are that small, that weak, you start to have the fringier elements of each party rise up and make the noise. Libertarian views are actually the mainstream views. If you go around my district and talk to people, most people have generally libertarian views. Now, would they call themselves libertarians, would they say, "Hey, I'm a libertarian?" Not necessarily, but they have a set of principles that are American principles embedded in this culture and this society, and they are fairly libertarian principles. I think we need to be able to present that to them and find some way to present an alternative going forward. I think as these parties get smaller and smaller there'll be more independence, and maybe a third party has a chance. I think the future I see is one where there are no strong parties and more independent candidates. We don't really need the parties anymore.
Gillespie: Talk about that. Is that because of technology? One of the things I suspect many people here are aware of, Rep. Amash explains his votes on Facebook. I know I've done this, and I think a lot of journalists do, like, when you don't really understand what the hell Congress is voting on you can go to his page because, regardless of his decision, he lays out what's going on.
Is it because of technological changes? We also hear money is more important in politics than ever, and you are only going to get money either through personal fortunes or party operations.
Amash: I think the ability to spread information is more important than the money and more important than the parties. You could not have had candidates like me 20 or 30 years ago before the rise of the internet. It would not have happened. The party would have crushed you before you got out of the gate. It used to be the case that with so little information going around you had to depend on the parties to tell you what a member of Congress is about. You wouldn't even hear about what was going on in Washington. You just know that Republicans did this, Democrats did that. You generally knew, "Well, my guy's a Republican, so he went along with the Republicans," and the Democrats had their thing going. You'd hear very little about the individual things that are going on in Congress. Now you can find out what a member of Congress had for lunch because we're tweeting it out, we're putting it on Facebook. You know a lot more, and therefore the power of the parties is waning. That's why they're getting smaller and weaker. I don't think they're as necessary, and Americans, I think, need to wake up to that fact a little more and say, "We don't need these parties to be the dominant thing." I tell young people all the time, "You don't have to be a Republican or a Democrat. You can be whatever you want to be, just go and fight for your beliefs and be as independent as you can. Just do your thing."
Gillespie: Let's talk about fiscal responsibility, which used to be a byword of Republican politics. What specifically worries you about the possible return of trillion-dollar annual deficits? Why is that a bad thing?
Amash: It's bad for the next generation. The debt's going to get out of control, these deficits are going to be, in the near future, they'll be $2 trillion annual deficits. We're going to have a $1 trillion annual deficit coming up. It won't be long before we have $2 trillion annual deficits. There's only so long this can work out. It can't workout indefinitely. It can work out in the near term because the United States remains the dominant economy of the world. We remain the wealthiest country of the world. There are those advantages we have, but those advantages aren't permanent. They're not automatic. They're not guaranteed to us. It depends on how we run our system. If this debt gets out of control the next generation's going to have a problem with it. We are, basically, spending money that they would like to use for things. We are spending money that is borrowed from people who will have to pay it back in the future.
Gillespie: It really kind of sucks to be them.
Amash: It does. It's my children who are going to suffer, and my grandchildren. There are other issues. Interest rates can go way up if you have a massive debt. There are other issues.
Gillespie: You touched on the idea that the United States, at least since the end of World War II, has been able to take for granted that we are the superpower in the world. Were one of two, and then one of one. That's changing now, and it seems as if America— In a weird way Trump promised to make America great again, which implies that we're not as great as we used to be. We're not going to be as great just because power and knowledge and economic growth is spreading out around the world. Things are decentralized more.
Talk about that in the context of national defense. Because this is also something Republicans, one of the reasons they were willing to cut a deal to break budget caps was so that they could fund more military stuff. You're very much of a principled, certainly not an isolationist, but you speak on behalf of non-interventionism or non-stupid wars. Is the Republican party or the Republican leadership going to catch up to the idea that we don't have to be everywhere all the time in the world for it to get on with its business?
Amash: No. This leadership's not going to figure that out. After this election, maybe people will start to wake up a little more. Look, there is such a level of stupidity right now in the way we spend money. It's not just that we're spending a lot, it's stupid. For example, if you take national defense. I think most people in this room, if you read the Constitution, I think most people everywhere agree defense is a top priority for the federal government. That's kind of why we have a federal government. It's so that the states could team up and provide for some kind of national defense. If you look at the enumerated powers, a lot of it's about defense. That doesn't mean we need to keep increasing the defense budget to astronomical levels. Right now we're spending as much as the next, I think, eight countries combined. It doesn't take much more spending to be spending as much as the next 20 countries combined, because the spending gets smaller and smaller. How much is too much?
Most of those countries, by the way, are allies. These are not enemies. If you look at the top 10 spending countries, maybe two of them would have hostile or semi-hostile relationships with us. Most of them are allies. I think it's absurd to have the Department of Defense telling us, "We don't need to spend money on X-item," and then Congress saying, "We're going to spend money on that thing," even though the Department of Defense says we don't need it. What happens in these districts, the defense contractors, they put facilities in 60, 70, 80 districts, and they build part of a machine here, part here, part here, and then they go to every member of Congress who has those facilities and they say, "Well, you don't want these jobs to be lost in your district, do you? It's a jobs program. We have to keep these jobs going." That's why the spending keeps going up. You have special interests coming in and asking for more. It's not because the armed forces are asking for it. It's because of the spending, and then it's because of the defense contractor spending.
Then we have these wars, of course, that we're fighting, like in Afghanistan, where we spend more per year in Afghanistan, and my friend Thomas Massie pulled these numbers up for me, more per year than the entire defense budget of Germany or the entire defense budget of the United Kingdom. We spend that just in Afghanistan. That's crazy.
Gillespie: Defense or national security is not just about the Department of Defense or the Pentagon. It's also about things like the surveillance state, the most recent shakeup. Could you quickly give a sense of are you happy with the idea of somebody like Mike Pompeo, who had been a congressman, was at the CIA, is now secretary of state. He's a big surveillance guy, a big hawk. Gina Haspel is now the CIA chief, and assuming McMaster is fully bounced you get somebody like John Bolton. Is your side winning when this happens?
Amash: No. I know Mike because I served with him. Mike's a nice guy. We had a good relationship. I don't agree with him at all on surveillance issues. The others I don't know.
It's certainly not the type of thing I think President Trump was talking about on the campaign trail. I don't think he imagined sort of a neocon, hawkish foreign policy establishment coming in. If that's what he's going for, it's going to be very different from what he was telling people on the campaign trail, and that would be a real shame. I don't think when people elected Donald Trump they wanted us to go back to George W. Bush. Which is better? We can debate that, but I don't think that's what people are asking for. They're not asking for a George W. Bush type of foreign policy. They're not asking for, I think, a Donald Trump type of foreign policy either. I think both are maybe extremes in different ways. I think we can do a lot better. We should put in some noninterventionist types in the State Department, and we should put in noninterventionist types in his cabinet and advisors, people who will give him realistic perspectives on the world so that we can make sound decisions that protect our country and don't get us entangled in all sorts of wars and other activities that we don't need to be involved in.
Gillespie: You had mentioned trade as a place that the country seems to be going backwards. Your friend Thomas Massie, when Trump pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, he was kind of in favor of that on the grounds of national sovereignty. You guys, the two of you, are pretty much plainly the most libertarian members of Congress, of the House of Representatives. Why is he wrong in that? What does it say about the libertarian contingent that you guys were split on pulling out of a trade deal?
Amash: I couldn't tell you that he's wrong because we didn't get through TPP. I didn't spend time reading it because I thought it wasn't going to come up. I'll tell you where we agreed, though. We believe that Congress should have authority over trade, not the president. It's primarily a congressional function. Now, we understand why you'd have one person or a small group of people negotiating deals, but Congress, ultimately, must make the decision on trade, and we shouldn't delegate that authority. We had this legislation called TPA, which was prior to TPP. We never got to vote on TPP, but TPA was voted on. I voted no on TPA.
Gillespie: That was Trade Promotion Authority?
Amash: That was Trade Promotion Authority. The reason I voted no on that is because they said they wanted to delegate through this bill, delegate authority to the president to negotiate these deals, and then we just get one up or down vote at the end. I think that's a mistake. I think that you have to maintain congressional authority over these things, which means as negotiations are going on Congress should have some input to say to the administration, "Yes, you may continue," or, "No, you may not." Because you have these trade deals going on for, sometimes, seven years in the negotiations. If you just give Congress an up or down vote at the very end, what ends up happening is there is so much political pressure on the members of Congress to support the deal no matter what it is because they're told, "Well, you really don't want to." They get all the businesses coming in from their districts coming into their offices, "Oh, you really don't want to sabotage this trade deal. We were negotiating it for seven years. You want us to start over on this thing?" You really have to have checks along the way, and they didn't have that.
I think Congress has done a bad job. We recently had a bill to give the president authority to lower tariffs on people. I think I was the only member of Congress to vote no. The reason I voted no was because we were, again, delegating our authority to the president, and we shouldn't do that. We shouldn't do that.
Gillespie: You're wearing a lumberjack shirt. He's becoming a lumber-sexual. Look it up, Google it. You're strong, you're brawny. You're like selling paper towels up here. How do you get Congress, this has been a theme over the recent weekend, how do you get Congress to actually do its job and say, "We're not delegating everything anymore?" It's like Congress has been outsourcing its job to the president, and the last three, and, arguably, the last 40-something presidents haven't been that good. What can be done?
Amash: People at home can vote new people in, but at the end of the day the speaker of the House has a lot of authority. I think you need the right speaker of the House in there. We don't have that right now. We didn't have it with the previous Speaker either. We're certainly not going to have it with Nancy Pelosi.
Gillespie: You don't want to bring Dennis Hastert back.
Amash: We don't want to bring Hastert back.
Gillespie: He's done.
Amash: There are no speakers on the horizon, whether it's the current speaker or Nancy Pelosi, who are going to fix this problem. The speaker has to protect the institution. The speaker of the House is not doing that. The speaker of the House is in the business of protecting members of Congress right now, protecting them from themselves. He and previous speakers go out of their way to prevent us from voting on things. They don't want us to go on the record. If there's a war, they want that war to be fought without members of Congress having any input, because then afterwards you can decide whether you supported it or opposed it. You can decide after the fact. Did it go well? OK, I was for it. Did it go poorly? Oh, I was against that the whole time. That's what they want on everything, whether it's trade, whether it's wars. They don't want members of Congress to do their jobs. The speaker has not been protecting the institution. You need a speaker in there who is an institutionalist, who cares about the institution first, who is not a partisan. Let the House work its will. Let legislation come to the floor. Let Republicans and Democrats and others offer their amendments, and let's have votes on all sorts of things, substantive things, not just post offices like they do now. Substantive things, and then if something—
Gillespie: Do a lot of post offices get voted down, by the way?
Amash: They never get voted down. Not one is ever lost.
Gillespie: It's a very safe vote.
Amash: Maybe if I put my post office bill on the floor it might get voted down, but no other post offices lose. Let's have substantive votes, and if a bill or an amendment fails, so be it.
This is what drives me crazy. They don't want to have any failures. They want everything to be rigged. They want to know in advance this is going to fail or this is going to pass. If it's going to fail they don't put it on the floor, but, actually, we should have a process where things can fail, where the American people can see, "This vote was put up, it didn't pass," and we move onto something else. We try something else. At the end of the day if you let the House work its will, libertarians aren't going to be happy with a whole lot of things. There'll be a lot of things we're upset up about. Republicans aren't going to be happy about everything. Democrats aren't going to be happy about everything. But we create a market, we create a mechanism for people to make corrections so people at home can see what happened and make adjustments saying, "I don't like this guy. I don't like the way he's voting. I'm going to vote for someone else." It allows someone like me, who has libertarian ideas, to bring those to the floor and present them and have a debate because right now we very rarely get to debate our ideas. I want to be able to go to the floor every day to debate libertarian ideas and present them and have the American people judge whether people made the right vote or the wrong vote on my amendment or my bill.
Gillespie: You've been talking a lot about libertarianism. One of the themes of this past couple of days at Reason Weekend has been: How do we reach new people, how do we convert people, how do we engage people?
Where did your libertarian ideas come from? Are you winning? Obviously, the past two Republican speakers of the house kind of hate your guts. You're not winning any friends or influencing people there. Where did your ideas come from, and then how to you sell them within Congress and within your district?
Amash: Well, I think I was born libertarian.
Gillespie: It's kind of like fetal alcohol syndrome?
Amash: I don't know what.
Gillespie: It's the genetics?
Amash: I was very much against arbitrary authority from childhood. Back then, for example, I remember our PE teacher, he gave some, I don't know what they call them, timeouts or detentions or something to some students for playing basketball in the gym during recess. I got upset about it. This was like in seventh grade. I said to him, "Well, why are these kids in trouble? We always get to play basketball in the gym during recess. That's just how it is." He said, "Well, this afternoon there's going to be some presentation happening in the gym, and we're setting some stuff up, so they're not supposed to be in there." I said, "Well, did you provide notice?"
Gillespie: I'm seeing the coach's point there.
Amash: "Was there notice to these kids? This seems really arbitrary they're in trouble for something they weren't even notified."
I was fighting for the rule of law at that point. I got into all sorts of trouble because of that stuff with teachers and others. I think it was really ingrained in me at a young age. I've talked about this else where, but my parents are immigrants. My dad's a Palestinian refugee. I think that a lot of his experience rubbed off on me. That he came from a place where he had no rights. He came here as a refugee. He told me all the time how wonderful it was to be in this country. How blessed we were to have been born in this country. That we have an opportunity here. It doesn't matter how poor you are. He came here extremely poor, like, with absolutely nothing. It doesn't matter how poor you are or what your last name is, like, Amash. That doesn't fit in in West Michigan. Maybe Amashstra or Vanderamash or something. It doesn't matter what your name is, you can make it in this country. He always told us when we were kids, "Success is not about being really rich, it's about being able to make decisions for your own life and provide for your family." That's what he wanted us to be able to do. He worked very hard to do that. I think that really made a huge impression on me as a kid, and it's why I was against arbitrary authority. It's why I believed so much in this country. I believe in liberty and the rule of law and our Constitution. It's because of a lot of that, I think.
Gillespie: The rhetoric, I'm sure, is accepted by your colleagues, but does the meat of those arguments, are they like, "Yeah, that's all beautiful, now here's a trade restriction. Here's a war. Here's stupid spending." What are the ways to get past people paying lip service to these great ideals?
Amash: I think two of the problems that I run into with my colleagues, one is that a lot of them don't read the legislation or know much about it. They don't really know what it is when it comes to the floor. The other thing is a lot of them know that I'm right. We'll go to the floor, and I'll say, "Hey, this is a bad bill because of X, Y, or Z," and we'll talk about it. They'll say, "You're absolutely right," and then they'll vote the wrong way. It's because they're afraid the bill title says something about protecting children or it has something to do with a current event, and they're worried about being on the wrong side of public opinion on it. I think that affects a lot of the voting. There'll be people who absolutely know they're doing the wrong thing, and they'll still vote that way because they're worried about public opinion. Massie always tries to convince people by saying, "Well, it's a freebie now. We've had so many bad votes now that you might as well just take this one too." The point is, I think that you should do the right thing, and then go home and explain it to people. I believe in the American people. I believe in my constituents. I think that's—
Gillespie: You left out apple pie and children.
Amash: I think that's one of the things that maybe distinguishes my approach from my colleagues is that I have a deep belief in my constituents. I really believe in them to do the right thing. I really do. I think my colleagues are much more cynical about how the public operates. I think that if you go and you put yourself before them, as I do at town halls and other things, and you explain yourself, people will connect with you. They'll appreciate what you're doing. They may find that they agree with you on so many things that they didn't think they agreed with you on. They'll find that you share the same principles that they share. You just have to put yourself out there and be open. You'll find that people are much more accepting of what you do, and even supportive of what you do than if you don't do those things. If you hide, if you try to go with the pack on everything, I think you never get to experience that like I do. That's why I have just a deep faith in the people back home.
Gillespie: Part of that is your willingness and ability to communicate directly with them, whether it's in town halls— I know Rep. Amash in a couple of seasons where congresspeople were vacationing in France rather than going home to their districts because they were going to get eggs and cabbage thrown at them. You weathered that pretty well. You talked directly to them via the internet. With this sex trafficking bill, SESTA, I guess is the name of it, part of what it does is it attacks the doctrine that a publisher of a website is not necessarily liable for things that people put on a bulletin board or on a job listing or at the comments at a political website like Reason. This was a very important early decision as the world wide web was becoming powerful that there was immunity so that you could have more discussions online. How worried are you about something like SESTA shutting down free speech? What are the other threats to free speech that you see that we really need to be taking seriously?
Amash: I think it's the first step. I don't think it in itself is going to shut down free speech. It starts the movement in that direction, and that makes me nervous. One other thing about that bill, the bill is an ex post facto law as well. It makes punishments retroactive. Something that was legal at the time it occurred, the action occurred, it makes it illegal, which is unconstitutional. Our constitution expressly prohibits that. Even the DOJ came out and said, they sent us a memo saying, "This is unconstitutional." We received a memo in our offices from the Trump Department of Justice saying, "This bill is unconstitutional." Now, I showed that to my colleagues, and they said, "Yeah, I agree it's unconstitutional," and they voted for it.
Gillespie: Are they just dyslexic or something?
Amash: That's disturbing. I think that's really disturbing. I think we're going down a dangerous road with some of the free speech stuff.
I want to be careful about how I phrase that in case it's cut and taken out of context. I love free speech.
Gillespie: We're going to have a field day with that in editing.
Amash: I can't wait til you edit it. We're going dangerously with free speech. We must protect free speech. I think that we're heading into a gray area where some of our free speech protections are being weakened by new laws. Whether it's the right to protest or some of the religious liberty as well. I think we need to be really careful about this stuff and really vigilant. I think it's one of the biggest concerns we have going forward.
Gillespie: Yeah, thank you. Thank Congressman Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, again. Thanks so much both for speaking so candidly today and also what you do when you're on the clock.
Amash: I want to say thank you to Reason for inviting me here today, but also for influencing me as a young person. Reason is one of the first things I started to read when I started to really think about politics. It made an impact on my life as well.
Gillespie: Thank you so much.