Rep. Amash meshes his civil-libertarian bent with fiscal conservatism

In his effort to redefine conservative success in Congress, 31-year-old freshman Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) invites comparison with the House’s best-known libertarian — Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Like Paul, Amash opposed last year’s final debt-reduction deal, along with a bloc of heavily conservative freshmen.

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And like Paul, Amash voted along with a bloc of Democrats against extending three provisions of the Patriot Act, including one that permits the continued use of roving wiretaps. 

Amash acknowledges that his emphasis on civil liberties — and willingness to vote contrary to party leadership at any time — is rare within his conference and among the conservative freshmen elected in 2010.

But the real difference between himself and other Republicans, he said, is that his staff is more likely to be discussing the Austrian School of economics than ushering in lobbyists and fundraisers for meetings.

“My day-to-day schedule is different from other members’,” Amash said.

“The role that special interest groups play in this office is a lot less than in a typical office. I don’t spend a lot of time over at the Capitol Hill Club raising money in the middle of the day.”

That’s partly because Amash, who represents a safe Grand Rapids-based district, dismisses what he sees as the go-to means for reelection.

“There is this belief that if you don’t spend a significant amount of your time meeting with special interests and PAC fundraisers and the rest, that you’ll be voted out of Congress,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing. And a lot of [Republicans] believe ‘I better do this … We’ve got to stay in the majority, and my seat is very valuable to our party and our agenda.’ I don’t feel any ill will toward them. I don’t think they’re bad because they do it. But I am a firm believer that if you focus on policy the support will come.”

Amash has seen some of the proposals he’s introduced pass — including the measure to ensure that the Pentagon can contract out certain functions to save money.

Others, such as the one to block body-scanning machines in airport security lines or a balanced budget amendment tying federal spending to average annual revenue levels, have not.

Amash is quick to say that he “really, really” likes Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and praises the Republican leadership for allowing him to offer measures they disagree with on the floor.

But he said some leaders and committee chairmen have been “much more open” to fiscal amendments and less so toward those that reflect his skepticism about U.S. interventions abroad.

“I might find certain people, certain committee chairmen, a little bit dismissive of my views there,” he said. “Still, I’ve been successful at getting enough Republican support to at least make an impact even if [the measure] doesn’t pass.”

One such amendment would have prevented the expansion of the authorization Congress enacted shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that permitted the use of military action against terrorists. Amash described the expansion as permitting “perpetual war.”

“The president would essentially never have to come back to Congress for authorization [of war], as the Constitution directs, if he could show there was some terrorist connection to the country that he is striking,” Amash said. But his amendment was rejected on a 187-234 vote.

Another amendment would have prohibited the use of funds for military force in Libya on constitutional grounds. It also failed, 199-229, despite support from some Democrats.

“If I offer an amendment related to foreign policy, it’s not going to pass,” he said.

The walls of Amash’s office are scattered with the portraits of the heroes of classical liberalism — a vein of conservative thought that forms the foundation for most libertarianism.

Near a poster of author Ayn Rand is an autograph from F.A. Hayek, the Nobel-prize-winning economist and prominent defender of free-market economics who died in 1992.

Amash, whose parents are Arab immigrants, says his interest in politics grew stronger after he attended law school and began reading Hayek, whom he called “my favorite economist and philosopher.”

“I do read his work on an ongoing basis,” Amash said. “Obviously, he wasn’t addressing the exact same issues when he wrote these works, but the principles at stake are the same. If I’m having difficulty thinking through an issue, reading his works helps clarify things for me.”

His other emphasis, Amash said, is a targeted research effort by his office ahead of every vote.

“We don’t rely on leadership to give us all the facts,” he said. 

“I think people really like the way I vote, especially a lot of the freshman members. I often get comments that people wish they could vote the way I vote.

“I’ve told my colleagues here: If you’re independent and you stick to your principles you’ll get respect from the right and the left.”

One tactic Amash employs is voting “present” when he agrees with a bill’s objective but not with the way it is accomplished, as he did during a push by House Republicans to defund National Public Radio last March.

“Why are we just writing legislation to prevent funding for one public broadcasting organization?” he said.

“I’m not here to promote vendettas or to get revenge on organizations that some have accused of not liking Republicans. … To me, that violates the rule of law.

“I want to defund NPR. But I want to do it the right way,” Amash wrote on his Facebook wall, where he defends every vote.

This story was updated at 3:17 p.m.