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Majority Makers: Justin Amash Isn’t Afraid to Walk Own Path

Rep. Justin Amash knows how a battle-worn activist feels.

Trudging from House office to House office, and sometimes from seat to seat on the House floor, the freshman Republican from Michigan spent his free office hours last fall asking colleagues to support his baby — a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

He visited about 60 Members, tirelessly talking with anyone who would listen as he outlined the reasons his amendment was better than the multitude of other BBA proposals.

But when the time came for the House to vote on a budget amendment in November, the resolution brought to the floor was not Amash’s. It belonged to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a 10-term Virginia Republican.

The situation illustrates the downside of being a freshman in an institution where seniority rules.

But in the massive freshman class, Amash, a mere 31 years old, stands out for his persistence. The tenacious lawyer-
turned-lawmaker, who served in the Michigan House, takes extraordinary measures to shine the spotlight on his causes.

Few Members, if any, instruct their staffers to cold-call hundreds of Congressional offices to schedule one-on-one meetings for their boss with other lawmakers. Amash’s aides phoned 390 Member offices to set up BBA discussions.

It’s not hard to picture him — he’s kind of a nerd — talking up his amendment with colleagues. He’s like a younger version of a high school civics teacher, spouting wonky language about budgets and economics.

The reaction Amash received was one of surprise. Democrats especially were shocked to see a Republican seeking their support. Others, he said, were curious as to why he took the time to meet them individually.

Despite the kudos he received for his efforts, the “f”-word returned to haunt him: “You don’t really think they’ll let a freshman Member of Congress amend the Constitution, do you?” one Member smirked to him last year.

“When someone’s been here for 20 or 30 years, they are naturally less open to the viewpoints of people who are coming in who are new, who have been here for two years or four years,” he said. “They figure, what do we know?”

Unshaken, Amash shrugged off the bully’s comment. Now — three months after the BBA vote, even though the topic is somewhat stale — Amash is still advocating for his legislative baby.

Constitutional Wonk and Idealist

Amash harbors no special love for NPR or Planned Parenthood. A libertarian at heart, he abhors the use of government funds to prop up private enterprise. Like most Republicans, he calls himself “pro-life.”

So why did he vote against his party on GOP proposals to ax federal funds for public radio and the reproductive health nonprofit? Because a 225-year-old document weighed heavily on his conscience.

Amash goes to extremes for more than his BBA. He’s just as stubborn when it comes to the Constitution, which tends to gnaw at his brain and “trigger alarm bells in my head” as he reads bills and resolutions, he said.

“To me, the Constitution is the first thing you have to look at when you look at legislation,” he said. “It’s not something you look to just to find a justification to defeat legislation. You have to look to it even when it might be a subject matter that you want to support and you want to promote.”

That explains the seating chart affixed to the wall to the left of Amash’s desk. Smack in the center of the horseshoe grouping is Amash.

“That’s me right there in the middle,” he said proudly, pointing to the photo last fall.

He explained it was a class that greatly affected his life: constitutional law. He loved it so much that he bid on the seating chart at a student auction and asked his professor to sign it for good measure.

That might be one way he earned a reputation on Capitol Hill as a wonk, despite being the second-youngest lawmaker. Friedrich Hayek quotes speckle his Facebook. He keeps framed photos of the Austrian economist in his office.

When anyone wants to debate the original intent of the Constitution, Amash is always game. And his colleagues seem to know that about him.

But sometimes Amash’s loyalty to the Constitution carries him away from the Republican fold. He’ll vote against a measure if it doesn’t toe the constitutionality line — even a GOP proposal.

In the case of the NPR and Planned Parenthood votes, Amash knew that if he flipped out his handy iPhone Constitution app — a tool he uses on a regular basis — he’d read that Article 1, Section 9 prohibits laws that single out any one company or group. Both proposals were unconstitutional in his eyes.

However, not all of Amash’s dissensions come in the name of constitutionality. With his libertarian tendencies, he sometimes disagrees with Republicans on areas of foreign policy and civil liberties, often finding himself aligned with unlikely Democrats.

He opposed a four-year extension of certain surveillance powers in the USA PATRIOT Act, for example. He rejected the fiscal 2012 defense policy law because of the controversial detainee provision allowing the president to hold without trial U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.

Amash was the only Republican to vote against a bill that would have required “In God We Trust” to be displayed throughout government offices — even though the Eastern Orthodox icons nailed above his office door show that he’s religious.

“Trying to score political points with unnecessary resolutions should not be Congress’s priority,” he wrote on his Facebook, where he defends his every vote.

Thanks in part to stances such as that, Amash is one of the more independent-minded freshmen. In votes where majorities of the two parties opposed each other, Amash stuck with Republicans 89 percent of the time in 2011, the 25th-lowest rate among House Republicans, according to Congressional Quarterly records.

“Some figures I’ve seen are actually lower than this,” he said almost disappointedly after seeing his CQ grade. Open Congress, he and an aide said, scored him in the 70s.

Vigor in All Topics

Just to the right of Amash’s Austrian economists photo shrine sits a large framed cartoon character that looks like Mickey Mouse.

“That’s not Mickey Mouse; that’s Oswald,” Amash corrected. “He predates Mickey.”

Amash spent the following five minutes prattling on about Oswald, Disney’s first major character, a lucky rabbit that looks like Mickey Mouse.

Amash’s love for Disney characters shows that not all his passions are super brainy. But like his wonky delights, he goes to extremes on behalf of his other causes.

Take his transparency and accountability fixation, for example. His belief that Americans should have easy access to their legislators’ voting records and rationalizations led him to start explaining every yea or nay he casts on the House floor.

He’s the first lawmaker to do such a thing, a tradition he started while serving in the state House. His Facebook reporting has won him praise from other lawmakers, been featured in dozens of newspapers, including Roll Call, and drawn 20,000 “likes.”

The “About Me” section on his website details his and his staff’s salaries and health care benefits — also in the name of transparency.

“The public wants to see what their Members are doing,” he said. “How is taxpayer money being spent? How are Member of Congress voting? So I try to make every effort possible to let my constituents know what is going on in my office.”

In the name of transparency and good governance, he won’t vote in favor of legislation or amendments he hasn’t read, which sometimes leads him to vote “present.”

“I think a lot of times Members vote along with their party,” he said. “They use the party as a shorthand for how they should vote on things. I just don’t operate that way.”