Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, a 34-year-old Republican, has lots of opinions.
The correct name for Star Trek fans? “Trekkies” — not “Trekkers.” The latest installment of Captain America? A “fantastic” indictment of government surveillance. Using hashtags on Twitter? Soooo 2008.
But those aren’t the beliefs that have put Amash in the cross-hairs of his fellow Republicans, who have called him a “wacko bird,” an “egregious asshole,” someone who “votes more with the Democrats than with the Republicans,” and most recently, “al Qaeda’s best friend in the Congress.” Some GOP lawmakers have gone so far as to donate money to his primary opponent. Amash, in turn, uses Twitter and Facebook to call out other Republican lawmakers by name and accuse them of sacrificing core GOP beliefs for political gain.
The fight stems from Amash’s uncompromising belief that the federal government has grown far too large and far too powerful, especially when it comes to national security. He has reserved particular fury for the National Security Agency (NSA), which he sees as an out-of-control spy agency that has run roughshod over the Constitution and the privacy rights of ordinary Americans. Amash wants to sharply rein in the NSA’s powers, and — to the surprise and consternation of many in his own party — the young lawmaker may help determine the makeup of the historic NSA reform bill cobbled together by powerful lawmakers from both parties.
At the moment, Congress is closer than ever to passing far-reaching legislation that would end the spy agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ personal data. The USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), is backed by the White House and senior lawmakers in both parties. It was forged as a compromise between hawkish defenders of the NSA and prominent civil libertarians. But as it moves closer to a floor vote this month, both Republican and Democratic leaders are watching with anxiety as Amash contemplates whether to wage a scorched-earth revolt against the less-than-pure bill or to try to add modest amendments to the current legislation. Last year, Amash surprised observers by reaching across the aisle and winning more than 200 Republican and Democratic votes for an NSA reform provision that went much further than his own party’s leadership was willing to go. He lost that fight, but gained credibility as a coalition-builder in the process. Amash has yet to telegraph his plans for the current bill, but he insists he won’t accept cosmetic changes to the NSA’s spying powers.
“If it looks like they want to move some of their pseudo-reforms through, then certainly we’re going to stand up and fight against that,” Amash said during an interview in his Washington office.
The long-delayed legislative effort to rein in the NSA overcame two significant hurdles last week with the passage of the USA Freedom Act in the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. Civil libertarians had long supported the bill because of its outright ban on the NSA’s bulk data collection of Americans’ phone records and its overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, the court that oversees NSA surveillance activities.
Amash, an original co-sponsor of the bill, was one of a handful of lawmakers involved in drafting the legislation. But the bill has changed significantly on its way to the House floor, making it vulnerable to an insurrection by him and other hard-line civil libertarians. If he pushes back too hard, however, Amash will be written off by House leadership and lose any chance to work on the bill from the inside so it includes piecemeal reforms he cares about. The fundamental question he confronts is whether to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
“If Amash wants to go in heavy and has a predictably stringent red line, he’s not going to get to play ball,” warned a senior leadership aide.
Most complaints from civil liberties advocates about the revised USA Freedom Act center on a few key compromises. In its original version, the bill prohibited the government from gaining access to the content of Americans’ data if collected in the process of targeting foreign terrorists, a technique known as “backdoor searches.” The revised version allows for those types of searches to continue. The original version also included a provision for a special advocate to argue on the side of user privacy in significant cases before the FISA court. The revised version omits the special advocate provision and allows the government to search records up to two degrees, or “hops,” away from a suspect pending approval by a judge.
“It clearly is not as pro-privacy as the original act, but it does make some improvements over current surveillance practices,” said Amash’s chief of staff, Will Adams. “We’re exploring whether we can improve it on the House floor.”
The fact that Amash even registers on the radar screen of powerful lawmakers at all is an oddity. The House of Representatives is a majority-driven institution, making it much less vulnerable to the whims of any individual lawmaker. Unlike the Senate, where a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul can single-handedly torpedo bipartisan legislation, rogue lawmakers hold much less sway in the lower chamber. But Amash is not an army of one, as GOP leaders learned the hard way last year.
In the summer of 2013, following Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the NSA’s broad domestic spying operations, Amash made it a priority to defang the spy agency any way he could. He joined forces with Rep. John Conyers, a progressive Michigan Democrat, on an amendment to limit NSA data collection only to individuals under investigation for potential terrorism links. He then set out to build a critical mass of libertarian Republicans and progressive Democrats in support of the amendment, drawing up spreadsheets of potential swing voters and canvassing their offices.
Although fiercely opposed by House Speaker John Boehner, Amash managed to win support from more than 200 lawmakers for the amendment, forcing Boehner to allow a floor vote. Although the reworked provision ultimately lost by an excruciatingly close 12 votes, 205-217, the effort put Amash on the map as a major player in the surveillance debate and showed leadership the significant appetite for reform in both parties.
“People wouldn’t even be talking about these reforms now if it wasn’t for Amash’s leadership on removing the NSA’s bulk collection authorities last year,” Rep. Jared Polis, a liberal Colorado Democrat, said in an interview.
“He rallied members of the Republican Party and people on our side of the aisle who shared his view,” added Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). “It was a left-right coalition, and it came close to succeeding.”
Since his entrance into the House in 2011, Amash has earned a reputation as the rightful successor to Ron Paul, the Texas iconoclast whose libertarian beliefs led him to vote against nearly every bill that came across his desk. Amash met Paul through his older brother David Paul, a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Amash’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In
some ways, Amash shares the now-retired congressman’s beliefs even more fully than his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has been trying to appeal to a wider audience as he gears up for a 2016 presidential run. Although both lawmakers have locked horns with GOP leadership, Amash seems to relish his public spats with top Republican brass even when it harms his standing in the party.
Following his vote against Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) 2012 budget plan — Amash said it didn’t reduce U.S. debt fast enough — the GOP Senate Steering Committee stripped him of his committee assignments. Even then, the scolding did not moderate his behavior.
“If Speaker Boehner wants to come back to my district, he’s not going to be met with very much welcome,” Amash threatened after the decision.
By contrast, Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, has strengthened his associations with the GOP establishment, most significantly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Although the two politicians initially worked against each other — McConnell backed Paul’s GOP challenger, Trey Grayson, in Kentucky’s 2010 primary — McConnell has since tried desperately to bury the hatchet, even hiring a former top Paul aide, Jesse Benton, to oversee his re-election campaign.
Though Amash has shown little interest in cozying up to the establishment in a similar way, he enjoys displaying his associations to both libertarian icons.
Just last week, the congressman tweeted out a mock Beatles’ album cover that replaced the portraits of the Fab Four with those of Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and himself. (If you don’t recognize the squinting, bespectacled lad in the bottom right, that’s Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie, an enthusiastic libertarian foot soldier.)
Though proud to walk in both Pauls’ footsteps, Amash says his uniquely contrarian persona plays to his advantage when building support for specific issues across party lines.
“I’m not that concerned with whether the leadership is upset with me or whether the president’s upset with me,” he said in an interview. “I think that actually helps me to build coalitions. People are not as cynical about my approach as they might be about other legislators.”
But that approach is not without its consequences. A vengeful GOP establishment is currently pouring money into Amash’s primary challenger, businessman Brian Ellis, ahead of Michigan’s August contest. In recent weeks, Ellis has gotten sizable checks from Home Depot, Dow Chemical, and even fellow Michigan GOP lawmakers. One of Amash’s most outspoken critics is Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. When asked about Amash’s views on government surveillance, Rogers, who personally cut a check of $5,000 to Amash’s opponent, accused him of willful ignorance.
“I’ve been disappointed in many members because they don’t want to know the facts,” Rogers told Foreign Policy. “It’s dangerous when people care more about the brand of who they are instead of the substance. This is the front line of protecting the country.”
Amash dismisses such attacks. “It’s frightening and dangerous that there are members of Congress who want to ignore the Constitution,” Amash said. “That’s what we should really be concerned about.”
The son of immigrants, Amash’s father lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank in the 1950s before moving to West Michigan after a church sponsored his family’s emigration. It was in Michigan that he met his wife, a Syrian immigrant, and built up a lucrative hardware business from the ground up. Justin, who has one younger and one older brother, earned a bachelor’s degree and law degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, he and his wife, Kara, have three children.
From those humble beginnings, Amash finds himself grappling with his support for one of the most significant overhauls of the FISA court since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. But although the USA Freedom Act has some of his fingerprints on it, it is now a piece of legislation forged out of a compromise between national security hawks and doves — a fact that is rankling some privacy advocates.
“The revised USA Freedom Act omits some of the most crucial provisions of the original bill,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of Open the Government, in a statement. Citing the government’s liberal use of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify broad surveillance practices not intentionally authorized by Congress, McDermott said the bill would not guarantee that the bulk collection program has ended.
Lofgren, who worked with Amash closely during the surveillance reform debate last year, attempted to attach additional privacy protections in the USA Freedom Act in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, May 7, but each amendment failed. In opposing the measures, lawmakers repeatedly cited the fragile deal forged with the House Intelligence Committee on the overall design of the bill.
It’s unclear whether Boehner will attempt to block similar amendments when the bill arrives to the House floor. According to a senior GOP leadership aide, the speaker has not yet ruled out the idea of allowing last-minute changes. “We haven’t closed the door to amendments,” said the aide.
Although very little in Amash’s career suggests a willingness to compromise on issues involving individual liberty and surveillance, those close to him have suggested a newfound pragmatism.
“Justin is much more effective now than he was just two years ago,” said Republican Congressman Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina. “He’s doing better and is starting to understand that not everything is worth shipwrecking things over.”
If Mulvaney is right, Amash may not wind up going to the mat to radically transform the USA Freedom Act. If past is prologue, however, the libertarian firebrand may want to wage one last fight before the bill leaves the House. It’s a decision that could determine the future of America’s most powerful spy agency.