The congressman made headlines for trying to defund the NSA, but has he earned his newfound appeal?
In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden debacle, one of the more interesting revelations was a sophomore representative from Michigan. At a time when the people demanded assurances that the wide-sweeping electronic surveillance revealed by Snowden’s disclosure would be discontinued, and that leadership in Washington seemed set on maintaining it status quo, Justin Amash (R – Cascade Township) did the unthinkable. He introduced an amendment to a Defense appropriations bill that restricted the military’s and the National Security Agency’s ability to conduct surveillance against American citizens, forced the House leadership to allow debates on it — despite their hesitation — and came within 13 votes of getting it passed.
Since then, Amash, who entered the House in 2011 as the second youngest representative, and is currently sixth youngest, has become a star in libertarian circles. His continuing campaign against government snooping is being seen as a direct challenge to the nation’s military-industrial complex, and recent comments suggest that the representative feels that a victory on the issue is but a matter of time.
“I’ve certainly heard from a number of my colleagues, directly and through the media, that they feel differently about the amendment now, that if they had a second chance, yeah, they might have voted yes on it,” Amash said on CNN’s State of the Union.
A man apart
Amash has come out against the Affordable Care Act, joining the Tea Party’s call to defund the program. In his position statement, he is against federal government intervention in education, he is anti-energy subsidies, anti-environmental regulations, anti-business regulations, anti-abortion, anti-taxes and pro-states rights. Regarding the military, he supports Congress holding sole authority to declare war, and he favors limiting the military’s scope and purpose to national defense. He believes in phasing out Social Security and Medicare and he believes in the Ninth Amendment’s protection of unenumerated rights to the individual.
In short, he is ideologically a perfect libertarian. Considering that he has never missed a vote since joining the House, holds the record as the sitting Republican representative that has voted against his party the most, refuses to acknowledge lobbyists and PACs— mostly because he serves a re-election-safe district — and has spoken out against some of the party’s leadership, many see him as the future of the Republican Party.
Others don’t. “This kid has made his bed, and he’ll have to sleep in it,” said one member of the Republican leadership to Politico after the amendment vote about Amash’s crossing of the House leadership. GOP strategist Karl Rove has painted Amash as the “most liberal Republican … Far more liberal than any other Republican.”
“And why? Because he is a 100 percent, purist libertarian,” Rove said, “and if it’s not entirely perfect, ‘I’m voting with (Democratic House minority leader) Nancy Pelosi.’” OpenCongress.org shows that Amash has a voting similarity with Pelosi of 22 percent. The average for a representative is 44 percent.
It is yet to be seen exactly what the ramifications of Amash’s forcing of the NSA debate will be. By conducting this debate on the House floor, both Democrats and Republicans who were privately against restricting the intelligence were forced to reveal their views.
An old-school conservative
However, the jury is still out on if Amash is a libertarian, a conservative or both. In January, Heritage Action for America named Amash a “Sentinel,” one of only 29 legislators that score a 90 or better on the group’s scorecard of conservative principles. Amash’s score of 91 made him the most conservative Congressional member from Michigan and the 19th most conservative overall. This is despite open opposition to Heritage Action for its opposition to civil rights and its support of indefinite detention of terrorist suspects.
Amash’s ideology seems, at cursory inspection, to be at strife with his background. Born to a Palestinian — who immigrated to the United States through sponsorship from a Christian pastor and ultimately became a successful business owner — and a Syrian Greek Orthodox mother, Amash attended Christian schools and was raised following the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. Amash’s father, Attallah, arrived in Muskegon, Mich. as a teenager after living as a refugee following his family’s expulsion from their home near Bethlehem by the Israeli Army.
Despite this, Amash has taken no sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preferring a two-state solution. It is in this departure from the unexpected that makes Amash interesting to watch. In him, many see a throwback to traditional Republicanism and old-school conservatism: less government, less taxes, less regulation. But in light of a national party that has redefined itself with extremism, it is yet to be seen if Amash is the road forward or an anachronism.
“I’ve always been a conservative, I’ve always been a Republican,” Amash said in response to being called a libertarian. “I don’t believe libertarian is a bad word,” he added, declaring the Ronald Reagan adage that “libertarianism is the heart and soul of conservatism.” “Libertarianism doesn’t mean no government, it means limited government.”