The lonely world of Justin Amash
If there was a Congressional Consistency Caucus, it might be the loneliest group on Capitol Hill. Representative Justin Amash of Michigan would be the chairman, vice chairman, and sole member. Over the weekend, Amash notably became the first and so far only House Republican to declare that President Trump has committed, in his words, “impeachable conduct” after he read the lengthy final report by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney called him “courageous.” But that was barely a whisper of praise against a deafening roar of partisan protest. Trump called Amash a “loser” and a “lightweight.” The pavlovian pitbull supporters of the president frothed and barked and gnashed their teeth.
I was not close to Amash in the six years I served with him in the House. He was swept in with the Tea Party tsunami in 2010. We had occasionally exchanged polite “hellos” in the forced captivity of a members only elevator or when walking in opposite directions down a corridor. We disagreed on important issues such as supplying Israel with defense technologies, supporting the Affordable Care Act, and much more.
But he is well known for his striking independence. For some, the House floor is a slippery ice skating rink, where positions are easily rotated and reversed. For Amash, it is where you dig trenches. He calls himself a libertarian, a title borne out by his votes. He was the only member from the Michigan delegation to vote against federal assistance for Flint following the water crisis, citing that the Constitution “does not authorize the federal government to intervene in an intrastate matter like this one.”
During the conflict between Israel and Gaza, Amash was one of only eight members to vote against legislation to provide funding for the Iron Dome that protects Israel, citing the need to “offset all new spending with cuts elsewhere.” He explained, “Our debt is approaching $18 trillion. Even our own defense spending is offset, so this was a clear violation of our rules.”
He also voted against a bill that guaranteed backpay for federal workers following the government shutdown earlier this year. He has even voted against approving the journal that simply records House proceedings. So seriously does Amash take his responsibility is Congress that he famously broke down in tears after accidentally missing his first vote since taking office, breaking a streak of more than 4,280 votes in a row over six years.
His record of consistent purity attracts inconsistent partisan responses. Depending on who describes Amash, he is either a “gadfly” or “maverick” and “principled” or “traitorous.” It can be refreshing to have a member of Congress who clings to a north star versus leaning reliably to the right or left, and who reflects deeply held beliefs, even when we disagree with the beliefs, versus toplines in a poll. Politicians with consistent principles can often be infuriating. They are courageous when we agree and incoherent when we disagree. They will defy our assumptions and our expectations.
They also require an outlying stubbornness in a Congress where many believe you must “go along to get along” and an ability to go it alone. Amash has taken a bold stand on impeachment that has now made him a target in his Grand Rapids district. A Republican state legislator already announced this week that he will primary Amash. Other Trump allies are considering primary runs as well. How Amash fares remains to be seen.
Carl Hulse of the New York Times reminded us this week of the fate of Representative Lawrence Hogan, a consistent supporter of President Nixon who voted for articles of impeachment. Hogan wrote at the time, “Do we want to be the party loyalists who in ringing rhetoric condemn the wrongdoings and scandals of the Democratic Party and excuse them when they are done by Republicans?” Indeed, Hogan lost the Republican nomination for Maryland governor, the office which his son now holds. “But in retrospect, he has been saluted for integrity,” Hulse commented.
Integrity. How is that for a caucus in the United States Congress today?
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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