Justin Amash (R-MI) is Brown’s unlikely bedfellow for good government.
‘Good Government’ is not only an ideal — it’s a class at Brown. Public policy concentrators who’ve taken the requisite intro class can learn about the core moral and philosophical questions facing civil servants and politicians. According to the course description, the “primary themes” of good governance are “openness, deliberation, and integrity.” While the proper role of government is very much up for debate — as the bitter partisanship of Congress can attest to — having government perform its work honestly and openly is an ideal that crosses ideological lines. Politicians who follow these principles should be venerated throughout the country and by all of us here at Brown. Ironically, however, it’s Justin Amash, the relatively unknown congressman from Michigan’s Third District, who embodies these traits more fully than anyone else.
As a junior Republican representative from the Midwest, Amash does not immediately come off as a candidate for Brown students’ accolades. He is personally pro-life, fiscally libertarian, and rabidly anti-Obamacare. But rather than fitting the mold of the stereo- typical old white conservative, he is a second-generation Arab-American, the son of a Palestinian businessman, and at the time of his election in 2010, the second-youngest member of Congress. He wants to limit welfare for the poor, but also wants to eliminate subsidies for corporations and profligate spending on the military. His legislative efforts relating to abortion have primarily focused on reducing governmental support for procedures, rather than criminalizing behavior.
But while his voting record is relatively moderate and his politics seem to cross the aisle, the most fascinating aspects of Amash’s tenure in Washington come from how — rather than what — he legislates. First of all, Amash has never missed a vote. As in, not once. He has 15 colleagues out of the 435-person House of Representatives joining him, which translates to about 3 percent of all representatives on Capitol Hill. Though many of those members missed sizeable numbers of votes due to illness or things like (in Ron Paul’s case) running for president, skipping not even one procedural vote shows a spectacular dedication to legislative work.
Being part of the 3 percent club is impressive for any congress- man, but it pales in comparison to Amash’s incredible feat of explaining every vote he casts. For this, he is an army of one. In February of this year, when he posted his 1,000th explanation to Facebook, he reached a zenith that no other legislator even approaches. If you visit Amash’s page, you’ll see the usual social media updates on the activities he engages in, the charity events he attends, and the smiling constituents he shakes hands with. But the majority of his posts follow the formula: “I voted [yes/no] on [House Bill] because [explanation].” The congressman himself writes these usually two to 10-sentence paragraphs and composes them for everything from procedural votes to controversial budget proposals. He explains the motives behind his compromises and the principles that drive him to stand firm against opposition. In so doing, he highlights not only his own work, but also that of the entire federal government, making Washington’s inside deals available for all 1.2 billion of Facebook’s users to see.
His antics have not made him popular on all fronts, however. At the start of the last legislative session, Amash was stripped of his job on the House’s Budget Committee. By his account, this was for being too principled for the mainstream Republican Party. According to one of his colleagues, he was instead fired because he was an ‘asshole.’ Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called him and several other anti-drone Republicans ‘wacko-birds,’ and Karl Rove named him the ‘most liberal Republican’ in office right now.
However, Amash still manages to get support from a wide swath of people. The most important group is the voters in his district, who catapulted him to a second term in 2012 with a nine-point margin. As a libertarian-leaning politician, he also gains much support form the national liberty movement, leading many to dub him the next Ron Paul, as well as this generation’s best representative for limit- ed government in Congress. Amash has received a 100 percent rating on his voting record from the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Freedom Index, and near-perfect scores from numerous other libertarian-leaning organizations. He is a Tea Party darling. But fascinatingly, he is also the Republican with the most independent voting record in Washington. According to the Clerk of the House, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) is the only one to top the number of times Amash has bucked his party on the House floor.
Brown University has much to learn from Amash going forward. The secretive nature of high profile institutions like the Corporation has fueled protest movements like Brown Divest Coal. For those on either side of the coal divestment issue, clearer investing practices would positively contribute to this debate. To be fair, Brown has done this well: President Christina Paxson’s Strategic Plan was developed by a committee with open meetings and amended after public debate. Though the plan is not perfect, its method of creation should be emblematic of future action in the University.
Brown is filled with groups supporting open government and effective political compromise. The Brown Political Review publishes nonpartisan content; Democracy Matters, Brown ACLU, Brown Students for Liberty, Common Sense Action, and numerous others advocate for democratic reforms, transparent institutions, and intelligent policy; the Brown Political Forum hosts weekly discussions specifically intended to unite ideological opponents. Amash’s combination of extremism and bipartisanship, of principled voting and an ability to reach across the aisle to compromise, is the foundation for all of these initiatives. That Amash also highlights the reasoning behind each of his votes provides a blueprint for legislators in governments everywhere. Though our student body is not the most receptive to those with an (R) next to their name, Michigan’s Third District has given us a representative whose commitment to good government should qualify him to teach a class on it.