Surveillance fight puts Michigan’s Rep. Amash back in national spotlight
Washington — The recent showdown in Congress over intelligence reform rocketed the libertarian-minded U.S. Rep. Justin Amash back to the national stage, as he cheered on Sen. Rand Paul’s attempt to block the renewal of the Patriot Act’s surveillance powers.
The west Michigan Republican has made surveillance reform the hallmark of his five years in Congress, and he’s not done.
He and his allies say they intend to harness the momentum and keep fighting to roll back the reach of U.S. intelligence into the lives of ordinary Americans.
“The (Republican) leadership has been forced to concede there’s a lot of support for privacy protections,” Amash said in an interview.
“We’ve come a long way from where we were two years ago,” when the Patriot Act had overwhelming support, he said.
In 2013, he and Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, led an unsuccessful effort to end the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records.
The turnaround indicates how uncomfortable the NSA’s program made Americans and their representatives, said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator and associate publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.
“Amash and Rand Paul have tapped into something in the American political psyche that is giving them renewed strength, making their voices a little stronger and be taken a little more seriously,” Ballenger said.
The debate further stoked Amash’s reputation as a GOP maverick unwilling to sacrifice his principles. It also prompted political observers to wonder where Amash is headed.
“Is he thinking Rand Paul gets the nomination, and he gets the VP nomination because he’s from Michigan?” said Dan McMaster, a GOP consultant with the bipartisan Lansing firm Grassroots Midwest, about the Kentucky Republican’s presidential bid. “I don’t know. People in Michigan don’t really know him.”
Amash, who just turned 35, said he hadn’t considered a Paul-Amash ticket, and he’s satisfied being a congressman. Still, “I think anyone should consider being vice president” if asked, he said.
Amash sees himself among a new generation of Republicans that has departed from party elders’ “almost exclusive” focus on national security that came at the expense of privacy and civil liberties, he said.
“The Fourth Amendment provides a balance, so that we can have liberty and have safety. The new generation of Republicans understands that,” Amash said.
The divide has led to clashes with his party’s leadership, costing him his seat on the prominent Budget Committee a few years ago. He has voted against the Republican caucus 24 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress.org.
When most of his colleagues left for the Memorial Day recess, Amash and a few colleagues stood watch in the House to guard against the possibility of leaders renewing the Patriot Act while members were away despite promises not to.
“Trust, but verify,” he posted on Twitter, quoting a Russian proverb used by President Ronald Reagan about U.S.-Soviet relations.
On privacy and surveillance issues, Amash said his closest allies in the Michigan delegation have been Democrats: Conyers and Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.
Opposed Freedom Act
The USA Freedom Act signed into law last week ends the bulk collection and storage of U.S. land-line calling records — a program disclosed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Conyers, ranking member on the House Judiciary panel, hailed the bill as a decisive end to “dragnet” surveillance. He was among its bipartisan authors.
“The government may no longer ask for all records merely because some of them may be relevant,” Conyers said at a recent markup hearing. “From now on, they must instead use a term that specifically identifies a person, account entity, address, or personal device as the basis for production.”
Amash opposed the Freedom Act in part because the phone companies will now search and analyze data at the request of the government — “worse in many ways given the broader set of data the companies hold,” he said on Facebook, where he explains his votes.
Former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Howell, who chaired the House intelligence panel through last year, has defended the surveillance powers as a “very important tool” in fighting terrorists, despite reports that the program hasn’t foiled any nefarious plots.
Asked about Amash, Rogers said in a statement, “It is always a shame when misinformed members of the House and Senate use national security issues to bring attention to themselves and create straw men who only they can fight.
“While some members were talking about being guardians of liberty, the bill they were fighting was renewing three key programs to stop terrorists from killing our fellow citizens.”
Even if the surveillance program had stopped an attack, Amash said it wouldn’t change his mind about it being an unreasonable search and seizure.
“Nobody swears an oath regarding safety. We swear an oath regarding liberty and defending the Constitution,” Amash said.
He’s working on legislation to strengthen whistle-blower protections for members of the intelligence community, specifically contractors. “I’ve long contended that the strongest check on the intelligence community are whistle-blowers,” Amash said.
The current reporting options for contractors are unlikely sympathizers — their supervisors, various inspectors general or the congressional intelligence committees staffed by former bureaucrats and officials from the intelligence community, said Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, which has been working with Amash’s office on legislation.
“Right now, the intelligence community’s contractors are the only significant sector of the U.S. labor force that doesn’t have whistle-blower protections” prohibiting retaliation against employees, Devine said.
Criticism and praise
Amash’s role in the surveillance standoff drew both criticism and praise, including this from Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who tweeted, “My first phone call after the expiration of the #PatriotAct was to call @justinamash and thank him.”
Others claim Amash’s views are out of touch with voters back home. He sparred on social media last month with Rob Engstrom, national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, after Amash called the Chamber’s $1 million ad blitz to promote the continuation of the Export-Import Bank “shameful.”
Engstrom commented, “Yawn. One vote out of 435. Wasted vote, wasted seat. Michigan deserves better representation. Shameful indeed.”
To which Amash replied, “Keep fighting for cronyism. It’s really popular in smoke-filled rooms.”
He’s the youngest member of the Michigan delegation, yet is on track to rank among its senior members before long because of recent turnover and expected retirements, said McMasters, the Lansing consultant.
McMasters predicts Amash would be passed over for leadership in the delegation because he isn’t perceived as engaging enough on Michigan issues like the Great Lakes and the auto industry. “Not that he doesn’t have any friends, but he’s not taken seriously,” said McMasters, former director of the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee.
David Dudenhoefer, a state party leader and state coordinator for Michigan Campaign for Liberty, disagrees.
“The issues that he’s dealing with do deal with Michigan because they affect all of us,” Dudenhoefer said.
Home: Cascade Township in Grand Rapids area
Committees: Oversight and Government Reform; Joint Economic
Caucuses: Chairman, House Liberty Caucus; Member, House Freedom Caucus
Notable: House GOP leadership kicked him off Budget Committee. Sparred with former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Howell, on phone call surveillance tactics. Explains all of his votes on Facebook. He has never missed a vote. He fought off a primary challenge in 2014 from a Grand Rapids businessman.