After contacting the congressional office of Justin Amash and expressing my interest in interviewing the 31-year-old libertarian Republican from Michigan, I received a terse reply via email from his press secretary.
“Hi, Michael,” the email read. “Thanks for your patience. This won’t work for Rep. Amash right now.”
This, I’m told, is a common response. Amash (rhymes with “awash”) doesn’t give many interviews. Most of the time, inquiring journalists are directed to the freshman member’s Facebook page, where they can find his educational history (University of Michigan, A.B. 2002, J.D. 2005), his religious views (Christian), and his extensive résumé (see the “About Me” screenshot below).
Amash writes and edits the page himself, often from the House floor on his iPad. That level of openness and transparency may help explain his impressive number of Facebook fans: over 32,000 and rising. He posts everything from photos of his inflight reading (recently, Hayek on Hayek, a volume from the collected works of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek) to videos of his speeches on the floor of the House. He updates seven days a week, at all hours of the day and night.
But Amash mostly uses his Facebook page to chronicle his work for the people of his district. He writes and publishes an explanation for nearly every vote he takes, which is a lot of explaining, since he hasn’t missed a vote since entering Congress.
At 11:11 a.m. on June 2, for example, Amash wrote that he voted for an amendment, authored by Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, to H.R. 4310. The amendment, he wrote, “bars funds for implementation of the Law of the Sea treaty. Among other things, the treaty includes a tax and redistribution scheme that covers resources in the continental shelf. It passed 229-193.” At 11:13, Lynette Largent commented, “Yesss! Whoot!” A few minutes later, Joseph Benning wrote, “Yeah! This diabolical LOST is a genuine threat to our sovereignty.” Amash’s post received 119 “likes” and 19 comments, all laudatory.
The commenters aren’t just constituents from Amash’s Grand Rapids-area district—their profiles show them to be as far-flung as Georgia and Alaska. The district was once represented by Gerald Ford and usually elects Republicans. Amash’s immediate predecessor was Vern Ehlers, a research physicist who retired in 2010 after 18 years in the House and had a reputation for moderate, inoffensive Republicanism and competent constituent service. Grand Rapidians aren’t used to being represented by fierce ideologues. But if Republicans in the district are at all unhappy with having a libertarian loner in Congress, they haven’t shown it; Amash was unopposed in this year’s GOP primary.
What is clear is that the majority of Amash’s Facebook interlocutors share his interest in Austrian economics, libertarian philosophy, and the politics of Ron Paul. In fact, Amash may be more the true heir to the elder Paul’s libertarian throne than his son Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator (and Romney endorser).
Like the veteran member from Texas, Amash has voted against the Republican caucus on more than 80 bills. He often votes against small, noncontroversial spending bills: federal assistance to state and local police forces, research funds for cybersecurity, additional appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs. A member of the House Budget Committee, Amash supported the Paul Ryan-authored budget in 2011 but voted against the nearly identical budget in 2012, saying that while it was, “in most respects, better than last year’s,” the 2012 cuts weren’t deep enough, particularly in the area of military spending and foreign aid.
An ardent civil libertarian as well as a fiscal one, Amash doesn’t just oppose this year’s National Defense Authorization Act—he coauthored an amendment with liberal Democrat Adam Smith of Washington that would have ended the military’s practice of detaining American citizens accused of terrorism. (The Amash-Smith amendment failed.) And Amash alone among Republicans joined eight very liberal Democrats in opposing a House resolution reaffirming the nation’s motto as “In God We Trust.”
House Republicans call him the “black sheep” of the conference, and Amash does seem to have an unscratchable itch to buck his own party. Take a recent bill designed to restore the flow of water to California’s Central Valley. A court ruling in 2009 halted the flow under the Endangered Species Act—the irrigation system supposedly harmed a species of smelt. Ten moderate Democrats joined 236 Republicans to give the drought-ridden Central Valley access to its water supply, with Amash the only Republican opposed. There’s no explanation for this vote on his Facebook page.
“He is a well-intentioned guy with very different goals than most people up here,” said one House Republican aide. “He’s not interested in governing.”
Or even in engaging with his House colleagues. When I asked fellow freshman Republican Renee Ellmers of North Carolina about Amash, she laughed nervously. “He doesn’t play nice with others,” said Ellmers, a Tea Party conservative popular with the House leadership. “The thing is, he is a member who represents his constituency, and he has a”—she paused to think—“a different perspective.”
For the Republican establishment, Amash may be more an amusing spectacle than a serious threat. After the first ask, the GOP leadership doesn’t bother whipping Amash on votes. Committee chairs have learned he’s not likely to budge and usually don’t try to negotiate with him. No congressman is an island, but Amash comes close.
A few days after his office rejected my interview request, I happened to spot Amash walking by himself on Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from the Capitol.
“Congressman,” I said, introducing myself. He looked startled and confused, as if most passersby in D.C. assume he’s a midlevel congressional staffer. I told him about my fruitless efforts to snag an interview with him.
“Well, um,” he said, “it’s been a crazy week.” He referred me back to his office and walked away without saying much else. Probably off to do important things congressmen do, I figured.
Later that afternoon, though, there was only one new update on Amash’s Facebook page—a brief birthday message for French libertarian economist Frédéric Bastiat. According to Facebook, “511 people like this.”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.
Correction: Amash does have an explanation for his vote against restoring water to the Central Valley, available on his Facebook page.