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Amash Explains Votes on Facebook

Freshman Member Uses Social Networking Site To Keep Constituents Informed on His Positions

Why did anti-abortion conservative Rep. Justin Amash vote against his party on an amendment that would block funding for Planned Parenthood?

You can find the answer on Facebook.

If you’re still confused, send Amash a message through the social networking site, and he may respond personally.

Since taking office in January, the freshman Michigan Republican has posted an explanation on his official Facebook page for every vote that he has cast in Congress. He even responds to a select few personal messages related to his voting record.

“I think it’s important for constituents to hear from the people they elected,” Amash said. “For too many years our elected officials have operated in the dark. People think they elected conservatives or liberals, but the Members don’t act the way people wanted them to. People need to know who they elected and what kind of votes are going through Congress.”

While Republicans and Democrats ping-ponged on the House floor over an amendment from Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) to the continuing resolution that prohibited funding for Planned Parenthood earlier this year, Amash was uploading his thoughts to the Internet:

“I voted ‘present’ on Amendment 11 to HR 1, because while I oppose abortion funding, the language, as drafted, violates my conservative approach to legislating,” he wrote in a February Facebook note. “Legislation that names a specific private organization to defund (rather than all organizations that engage in a particular activity) is improper and arguably unconstitutional.”

Amash, 31, started his political Facebook page while campaigning for a Michigan Legislature seat in 2007. Then 27, he was already familiar with social media since he operated his own personal Facebook account for friends and family.

When he won the race and assumed office in 2009, Amash started explaining his votes and has continued the tradition ever since. He brought the practice to Congress. If he casts it on the House floor — procedural or otherwise — he records it on his page.

He has a routine: Press the appropriate button on the House voting machine, plop down in one of the chamber’s leather chairs, grab his iPad and explain.

Unlike most Members who assign staff to update their social media profiles, Amash writes every message. Mostly he reaches for his iPad, but sometimes he’ll use his iPhone or the computer in his office to update his profile.
The time of day has no bearing on his posts.

“If I think something interesting is worth posting, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the middle of the night or early in the morning,” he said. “I just try to keep the public informed about what I’m thinking.”

Social media is not all business for Amash. There’s also the occasional conservative economics philosophical post. (He loves him some Friedrich Hayek.) And the multimedia-savvy lawmaker also links videos and political articles to his page.

But not Twitter. With just 140 characters per tweet, roughly a third of the space for a Facebook status update, Amash said it’s just too difficult to fully explain votes.

Thomas Mann, a Congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, said Amash’s posts explaining votes are unusual.

“Members often include statements in the Congressional Record explaining their votes, but a comprehensive accounting of all votes on Facebook certainly raises the ante,” he said.

The Facebook ritual may also be a product of Amash’s age. As the youngest freshman Member, he came of age when the social networking site took hold.

Regardless, Mann said Amash will have a tough time keeping up his entries considering how many votes pass through the House each day. He also said the practice may stale with constituents considering the amount of “symbolic and inconsequential votes” that occur every day.

Some politicians refrain from explaining votes so that years later, when circumstances change their opinions, they don’t get pigeonholed to their former, now-unpopular reasoning.

Amash admits the likelihood of being pinned to his words in the future, especially since his opinions are forever documented on Facebook, but he isn’t worried.

“I’m not scared to rewrite history down the road,” he said. “When I give an explanation for my vote, it’s based on what I believed at the time. I’m not concerned that down the road I’ll be wrong about an item or two — that’s a given. It’s just the way the world works.”

Last Wednesday, Amash explained more than a half-dozen votes that he cast that day. Some days he posts more and others times it’s less, depending on the number of House votes.

But even on the busiest of Congressional days, Amash doesn’t plan to slow his vote explanations because he has received positive feedback on his practice.

“I’ve received very positive reactions not only from Republicans but also from Democrats and independents,” he said. Most of the time he encourages them to adopt his ritual, though he doubts many will since it requires constant updates.

His vote explanations have also endeared him to the media. The New York Times printed an 800-word spread about his Facebook page in April, and Glenn Beck mentioned Amash’s Facebook page on his show.

But the best benefit of an active Facebook page? A happy constituency, he said.

“People write me messages telling me that even though they may disagree with my positions, they like that I’m transparent,” he said.

Other people — sometimes hundreds in one day — message him about his voting records. He tries to respond.

“I can’t possibly respond to every message that comes to me, but I do my best to respond to any messages that relate directly to how I voted,” Amash said. “It depends on the day. Some days I don’t have as much time to respond.”

On April 9, 7,000 people “liked” his page. A week later that number jumped to 8,000 and by Tuesday it was more than 9,400.

That may not be as many as Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) 95,000 or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) 40,000, but it sure tops some leadership “like” numbers. Minority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) pages, for example, have about 3,000.

Amash said he owes it all to his Facebook, not necessarily his politics.

“People are more interested in transparent representation than they are in Republican or Democratic representation,” he said. “They’d rather have a Representative who is independent and explains all his or her votes than one who votes without explanation. Constituents want transparency. There is a high value in that.”

Facebook Allows Amash Opportunity To Define and Defend Voting Record

Transparency is next to godliness for Rep. Justin Amash, but he also uses  Facebook as his go-to defense when dissenting from his party.

In his first five months in office, the Michigan Republican freshman has often voted “present” instead of taking a yes or no position on legislation.

“One of the reasons I post votes is to explain myself so people can understand why I voted the way I did — especially when I take positions that are independent from my party,” he said. “It helps protect me from misinterpretations of my votes in the media and creates a permanent record of my reasoning.” Check out these dissenting explanations from his Facebook page:

April 9

“Just voted no on a motion to concur in the Senate amendment to HR 1363. The substitute, which we received at midnight, is riddled in cross references. It keeps the government operating through April 15 and cuts an additional $2 billion. This extension paves the way for a deal that will reduce the size of the federal government by 1%. Pray for our country. It passed 348-70.”

April 15

“Just voted yes on the [Rep. Scott] Garrett of NJ Substitute Amendment 4 to H Con Res 34, the FY 2012 budget. This substitute is known as the Republican Study Committee Budget. In FY 2012, the RSC Budget keeps revenue even with and spends $241 billion less than Paul Ryan’s Budget. It also reforms entitlements more quickly and balances the budget sooner than Ryan’s. The amendment failed 119-136-172. That’s right—172 present votes.”

“Here’s an explanation for the last vote: It takes more ‘ayes’ than ‘noes’ (not 218 ‘ayes’) to adopt an amendment. Democrats used ‘present’ votes to keep the ‘ayes’ ahead of the ‘noes.’ Several Republicans switched to ‘no’ so the amendment would fail. If the RSC Budget had been adopted, it would replace the Ryan Budget for a final vote. To return to Ryan, RSC supporters would have had to vote to replace RSC with Ryan.”

May 5

“Just voted yes on HR 1230, Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act. The bill requires the Department of Interior to conduct four offshore oil and gas lease sales within the next year. The sales were slated to occur under Pres. Bush’s 2007-2012 oil and gas plan, but they have been delayed or canceled under Pres. Obama. We need to open up domestic energy production. The bill passed 266-149.”

May 4

“Just voted no on the [Rep. Frank] Pallone of NJ Amendment 2 to HR 1214, which requires [the Government Accountability Office] to produce a study within one year to identify the school districts most in need of school health center construction or renovation. This is not an appropriate federal function. It failed 205-210.”

Letter to the Editor

Roll Call’s Wednesday, May 11, 2011, article “Amash Explains Votes on Facebook” misquotes a statement I made during a phone interview. The correct quote is “I’m not here to rewrite history down the road.”

Rep. Justin Amash