Political Hay

Boehner Punishes the Principled

A conversation with one of the purged, Rep. Justin Amash.

By 12.7.12

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A friend e-mailed me some months ago to suggest that I contribute money to a particular congressman's campaign. My friend is a Democrat of some national prominence, and I responded to him, "You know I never give money to Democrats."

He said, "No, this guy is a libertarian-leaning Republican, sort of like a young, sane Ron Paul." So I said I'd do some homework and consider a contribution if the congressman would be willing to have a phone conversation with me.

The next day, with the ringing of my cell phone, began my introduction to Congressman Justin Amash (pronounced uh-mosh'), the 32-year old representative of Michigan's 3rd Congressional District (Grand Rapids and surrounding areas).

We spoke for nearly half an hour, on topics ranging from abortion to government spending to national defense and -- this was Justin's topic -- the idea of private enterprises issuing competing currencies given the debasement being done to the U.S. dollar by our Federal Reserve and Treasury. Clearly, no inside-the-box thinker on my hands.

Of the many things to recommend Amash, who is the second-youngest member of the 112th Congress, including graduating magna cum laude with an economics degree from University of Michgan, where he also received his JD (law degree), perhaps the one that interested me the most was his Facebook page where Congressman Amash to this day posts an explanation for every vote he casts in Congress.

It is also worth noting that (at least according to his House web page), "Justin was one of only twelve Representatives to have perfect attendance, not missing one of the 948 roll call votes, during the First Session of the 112th Congress."

Amash is nobody's neo-con, aggressively criticizing "the unconstitutional war in Libya, the indefinite detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act, and the Stop Online Piracy Act -- SOPA." And while he is somewhat toward the conservative end of the spectrum on social issues, such as being anti-abortion, he holds strong reservations about federal involvement in our personal lives.

For this libertarian-leaning Republican, Justin Amash seemed about as good as it gets.

Before donating to his campaign, I wanted a second opinion -- and a third. So I contacted my friend Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, to ask his opinion of Amash, whom the FreedomWorks PAC had endorsed in 2010. Kibbe, who is not shy about changing his mind when politicians get Potomac Fever, said, and I quote, "Justin Amash is a rock star." I then contacted a gentleman I know in the leadership of the Club for Growth, a very large fiscal issue-oriented conservative PAC, who told me, "On our issues, Amash is probably the single best member of Congress."

'Nuf said.

Justin Amash thus became the only member of Congress to whom I contributed in the 2012 election cycle. I have never regretted it.

Amash votes his principles more consistently than most politicians do, including being one of two Republicans to vote against the House Budget Committee's 2013 budget, aka the Ryan Budget, while a member of that committee.

Fast forward to this week when we learned -- before Justin Amash did -- that he had been removed from the Budget Committee along with Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), who was the only other Republican to vote against the Ryan budget in committee. Two other Republicans, Dave Schweikert (R-AZ) and Walter Jones (R-NC), who along with Amash and Huelskamp opposed the Budget Control Act, were removed from the Financial Services Committee.

On Wednesday, Rep. Huelskamp quoted Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) as saying that the leadership "punished four members" (remarkably attributing the stark word "punished" to the Speaker) and that Boehner "warned GOP lawmakers that there may be more folks that will be targeted ... 'we're watching all your votes.'"

Not least because I thought we had a Congress rather than a Politburo, and because I (perhaps naively) expected better behavior from John Boehner than from Nancy Pelosi or Barack "Don't think we're not keeping score, brother" Obama, the news inspired my second long phone conversation with Congressman Amash, this being an exclusive interview of him for The American Spectator:

Q: Justin, how did this whole story develop for you?

JA: On Monday morning, I heard about Schweikert being removed from his committee. A couple of hours later, I heard the same from Huelskamp, directly from him. I then started to wonder "Who else are they going after?" That's when I saw a news report saying that I was being removed from the Budget Committee. But the entire day I didn't get a call from anyone about what my committee assignments would be or why I might have been removed from the Budget Committee.

By Tuesday afternoon, I still hadn't received any word from leadership. Wednesday was the first day I spoke with leadership about my committee assignments, and I approached them.

Q: What was their explanation for why you were removed from the committee?

JA: You get conflicting stories. They insist that it's not because of the votes, and not because of my philosophy. But there is no clear, consistent message about why I was removed from Budget.

Q: What's your guess?

JA: I think it's my votes, in general, when it comes to fiscal issues.

(As of this interview, Amash does not believe anyone but Huelskamp and he were removed from the Budget Committee. News stories say that only four Republicans were moved off of committees they wanted to be on, and Huelskamp and Amash are the only two in those stories who are on Budget.)

Q: What do you believe is leadership's motivation?

JA: By going after a couple of us, they send a message to all of us: Watch out!

Q: What has been the response from your constituents and your fellow House Republicans?

JA: My constituents have been extremely supportive. We've been receiving calls, as well as Facebook and Twitter messages around the clock. Virtually all of them are supportive. It's no surprise because I ran as an independent thinker who would work to reduce our debt.

From my colleagues, I've heard very encouraging words of support. It's pretty clear to me that leadership has upset quite a few members of the Republican conference with their actions.

Q: So what is really going on here?

JA: Unbeknownst to us, leadership has been keeping some kind of scorecard. We don't know the details of it. We don't know which votes they're including. It seems to me that voting in a conservative way is marked as a negative score, and voting in a big-government way is marked as a positive score. You don't see people being targeted who are a problem from the left flank of the party.

Q: How will these events impact your behavior and votes going forward?

JA: It's important for me to stick to my principles. If anything it emboldens me to get this message out there that we have a problem on our own side in terms of living up to the promises we make to our constituents and trying to reduce our debt. Members like me are going to be empowered by these actions.

Q: So how will leadership react to your being "empowered"?

JA: Leadership's concern is much bigger than just Justin Amash. They are concerned about a growing number of conservative- and libertarian-minded Republicans who have a very different approach to policy and politics. The attempt was made by leadership to punish a few of us to send a message to the larger group. But it undermines their credibility and makes it more difficult to get independent-minded Republicans to toe the establishment line because members don't trust leadership's intentions anymore. If they tell you that they're fighting for conservative values and then they punish conservative members for conservative votes which are somehow marked as negatives on their scorecard, they send the message that they're not really fighting for these same ideals.

Q: Instead they're fighting for what?

JA: That's a good question.

(Discretion better part of valor in not continuing, Rep. Amash did not elaborate on this question, though I can imagine what he was thinking. After all, don't most politicians from time immemorial care about their own power first and foremost?)

Q: Clearly you made news voting against the Ryan budget earlier this year. What else might you have said that would make leadership want to punish you?

JA: One of the aspects that unites the four of us is that we've been more open to looking at the Pentagon budget as part of any compromise with the Democrats. That's also true of this larger group of conservative-libertarians who are new members over the past two years. Maybe they're also sending a message that that's not something we (leadership) are willing to cut or reform as part of any budget deal.

Q: So Spectator readers can understand some of the important background, why did you vote against the Ryan budget in 2012 (technically the 2013 Budget Resolution)?

JA: Three main reasons. First, it didn't comply with the Budget Control Act. The Act included reductions in government spending, which is where we get the sequester from. The 2013 Budget Resolution acts as if the BCA doesn't exist by assuming spending levels higher than the BCA called for. Spending levels were actually higher than the levels that Republicans and Democrats agreed to in the BCA, and therefore the budget included more spending than the law actually allows.

Another reason was that the Committee refused to put military spending on the table as an area of the budget that would be reduced. And the third reason was that it doesn't balance for nearly thirty years.

But, it was a close call for me, and the BCA issue was the most important aspect. After all, I did vote for the 2012 budget which had the same problems I mentioned in my second and third reasons for voting against the 2013 budget. I voted for the budget the previous time because I thought it was important for Republicans who were elected in 2010 to show unity in shifting our budget priorities, even if the shift weren't as far as I'd like. In the 2013 budget, I felt as if we'd had an important further year to deal with the issues, but that they were not taken in a serious way or even looked at. Adding the BCA issue pushed me past my tipping point, though it remained a very difficult vote.

Q: So are you always a thorn in the side of Paul Ryan and John Boehner?

JA: On the Budget Committee, I voted with the Chairman 58 out of 61 times, which is over 95 percent of the time. People should understand that when they (leadership) are concerned that I am not a "team player" they are talking about a very small percentage of my votes. And still we don't know what they really mean by "team player" since they haven't released their criteria.

Q: Any final thoughts today?

JA: If leadership is getting as many calls as we are, they may be realizing the support they are creating for us.

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Epilogue: If the response to Rep. Amash's Tuesday Facebook post about his removal from the Budget Committee is any measure, with well over 5,000 "likes" and 1,700 "shares" so far, the congressman is if anything underestimating the boomerang soon to hit Republican leadership based on their Soviet-style purge. (Boehner and others suggest that the issue is not ideology, but rather loyalty. They point to other Republican House members who have criticized their own party from time to time. For me, in the vast majority of situations, adherence to principle is more important than party discipline. Boehner's moves look like those of a petty tyrant.)

Much as Justin Amash reached his tipping point regarding the Republican budget, I have reached my tipping point with the GOP. I've been thinking about it for a while, but this Sunday, during my radio show, I will publicly drop my Republican Party registration. And although I very rarely donate money to Republican Party organizations (as opposed to PACs or directly to candidates), that will now become "never again until I believe they have come to value principle and support those who vote in accordance with the Constitution."

If enough people react similarly, perhaps John Boehner will realize the self-destructive folly of punishing the principled.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.