Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is not your ordinary Republican. While most of his colleagues are interested in preserving the status quo, he has focused his efforts on transparency in government and protecting individual liberty.
Amash, 33, posts an explanation of every single vote he casts on his Facebook page, a practice he started when he served as a state legislator in Michigan. He has been one of the most consistent fiscal conservatives in the House of Representatives and has emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the National Security Agency.
The libertarian-leaning Michigan Republican’s principled stands have often rattled the political establishment, which he wears as a badge of honor. In fact, his constituents in Michigan’s Third Congressional District have responded positively to his independence and willingness to speak out against House Republican leaders when they’re not backing up their rhetoric with bold action.
But Amash’s principled stands have motivated the establishment to recruit a primary challenger to run against him. His popularity both inside and outside in the district, however, has served him well.
The “Rebel Alliance,” what Amash calls his supporters, has stood strong behind him. He hauled in impressive $518,776 in the fourth quarter of 2013, of which $497,968 came from individual contributors. He raised $42,412.99 in a one-day money bomb event last week.
The only poll out of the district, paid for by Club for Growth, found Amash with a 48-point lead over his establishment-backed primary challenger.
United Liberty chatted with Amash on Wednesday about a few different topics, including outreach to Millennials and the ongoing debate over the NSA. We also discussed his bid for reelection in MI-03.
United Liberty: Joining me today is Congressman Justin Amash. He represents Michigan’s Third Congressional District. Congressman, thanks for taking some time out of your day. We know you’re busy, appreciate it.
Justin Amash: Thanks, Jason.
UL: So how was Liberty Karaoke [on Tuesday] night, before we jump into everything else?
Amash: It was fun. It was great. We had a smaller group than we had for [Kentucky Congressman] Thomas Massie the previous time, but that’s because Igor Birman is less well known. But we’re trying to change that and we think he’s got some momentum. There was still a pretty good group for Igor. We had a great time.
UL: One of the things I found interesting about you is that you’ve been able to connect with young people in a way that most Republicans haven’t. Liberty Karaoke, the kind of attraction and draw that you bring by doing that sort of event. Maybe it’s just because you’re a young member of Congress, but it also may be some of the things you say. What draws young people to you? Or, to liberty-minded politicians in general? Massie has quite a following as well.
Amash: It’s the message. They want a transparent government. They’re part of this growing internet generation that believes you should be open about what you’re doing and explain what you’re doing to the public. And they want a government that follows that process as well.
When they look at the kind of ideas we’re putting out there through this transparent process, they’re seeing members of Congress who are more principled, who aren’t contradicting themselves. They believe in limited government, they believe in limited government across the board. And that’s what they want to see. They’ve lost trust in government, and we’re helping to rebuild some of that trust.
UL: Is it just the transparency angle? Because I know Republicans have been reaching out to Millennials, at least trying to, lately. I see some connection. A lot of candidates and Republican politicians I hear focused on jobs and the economy. But there seems to be a disconnect with social issues. I know you’re a conservative on social issues, but is there a middle ground that can be found with Millennials on those issues?
Amash: The transparency helps, going back to that point. It helps us communicate back and forth so we can hear their ideas. They want to see people who are open minded, who are thinking through these issues carefully. And for too long, Congress has operated behind closed doors.
Now you have some liberty-minded representatives who are engaging with them, who are expressing themselves, who are willing to reconsider some of the views that the Republican Party has held for a long time. And there’s a much stronger support for protection of individual liberties, for example, civil liberties, within the Republican Party now. That’s going a long way in building support from young voters.
UL: Well, you just brought up civil liberties, and I’m glad you did. The NSA’s bulk data collection program remains a serious concern. Just yesterday, The Guardian reported that the NSA is using loopholes to search Americans’ phone calls and emails without a warrant. The proposals from the White House and the House Intelligence Committee fall far short of addressing some of the fundamental issues with the NSA. I know you’re backing the FREEDOM Act. Where does that stand right now?
Amash: It’s in the Judiciary Committee, and we’re trying to get it moving in there. We have a lot of support from Judiciary Committee members, so that’s a bonus on our side. The proposals from the White House and the Intelligence Committee don’t really make much of a difference. They don’t actually stop bulk collection. They transfer where the data is held, but the government can still access it in basically the same way.
So there aren’t really protections for people’s civil liberties and that’s not really the direction we should be taking as a party. The President has been terrible on this issue, and we need to take advantage of it and show that we are a party that stands for the rights of all Americans. And we’re going to put forward real legislation to address this issue.
UL: [Kentucky Senator] Rand Paul wants to just drop it, the President to just drop it. You’re saying, and others are saying legislation, the FREEDOM Act. Are those two mutually exclusive?
Amash: I think we need to take every approach. I’ve been in favor of lawsuits to take this issue to court, but we have a responsibility as members of Congress to do everything we can to stop the President and change the law so that it complies with the Fourth Amendment.
Currently, the PATRIOT Act is being interpreted in a way that is not consistent with the Fourth Amendment by the secret FISA court. And it’s our job as members of Congress to change that and to tell the FISA court, if you don’t want to follow the Constitution, then you’re going to at least have to follow this law which is consistent with the Constitution. So if they believe that the Constitution is interpreted in a different way than we do, then we better write the law to be clear about what we mean.
UL: Going back to the loopholes that The Guardian mentioned. There’s national security letters, Section 214, pen and trap. Does the FREEDOM Act address those issues and concerns?
Amash: It’s a pretty comprehensive bill. So it addresses a lot more than my amendment that I offered to the defense appropriations bill. But there’s more we can do. There are other sections of the PATRIOT Act we need to look at to make sure we are ensuring that everyone’s rights are protected.
Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about how many of these sections are being applied to violate the rights of Americans. We happen to know about Section 215 because it was revealed through the Snowden thing. And I’m positive that there are other sections out there that are being abused, and unfortunately, we don’t know enough to make the changes yet that we need to. But with that said, the FREEDOM Act is pretty comprehensive and tries to address the areas that we do know about.
UL: You recently told The Hill that you would push an amendment, or you may push an amendment to prevent the kind of broad surveillance powers that the NSA has exercised if leadership blocks the USA FREEDOM Act from a floor vote. Do you have the votes to pass an amendment like that?
Amash: Yes, we certainly do. There’s more than enough votes to pass the FREEDOM Act. The White House proposal and the Intelligence Committee proposal are simply an effort to stall the process. They don’t really do much, and it’s an effort to keep this issue going so that the President can continue to use the same system he’s been using without making any substantive changes.
So we’re going to push hard for the USA FREEDOM Act. And if we can’t get a vote on USA FREEDOM Act or something comparable, then we’ll use all legislative means to stop this invasion of people’s rights.
UL: Changing gears a little bit. I know you’re running for reelection, you have a primary challenger. How’s everything going? I know you’re coming off a money bomb, I’ve seen at least one poll that shows you far ahead of your primary challenger. But my understanding is that the primary day isn’t until August. So how are things going at this point?
Amash: Things are going great. He comes from the establishment wing of the party. His views are fairly fringe. And I don’t think he’ll get much traction within our district when election day comes around.
So we feel good, and we’re going to keep pushing ahead. He has a lot of money, he’s going to spend that money, he’s going to do everything he can to smear me and spread falsehoods.
The good news is that the people of my district know that I’m transparent. I explain every vote I take through Facebook, and they have developed a trust with me. So I feel good about where we’re going. I think we’ll come out with a big win on election day.
UL: Have there been any Republicans, maybe your colleagues, who are pushing your primary opponent? Have you heard anything, or whispers, or anything like that?
Amash: I don’t know. You never know who’s behind what. There’s certainly some people in the establishment here in DC who aren’t the biggest fans of Justin Amash, and I can live with that because I’m following the Constitution and doing what’s right by my constituents, protecting their liberties.
UL: Congressman, I won’t keep you any more. I appreciate your time today, I know you have a lot going on. Any final thoughts you want to leave us with?
Amash: Just keep fighting for what’s right and being independent. I need people out there to know that they don’t have to be part of the system that we have right now. They can forge a new path, and I think there are a lot of young people that are doing just that, who are being open-minded and are considering whether one party or the other is always right. Because the two parties make mistakes, and we’ve got to be independent-minded people who want to get things moving back in the right direction.
UL: Congressman, thanks a lot, we appreciate it. Best of luck to you.
Amash: Thanks so much.