Justin Amash kicked off 2013 with an act of pointless, doomed rebellion. The congressman from Michigan, a Republican first elected in 2010, had just been removed from the budget committee, a long-delayed comeuppance for his opposition to the Paul Ryan budget. (Like many libertarians, he didn’t think it went far enough.) He talked freely to reporters about the snub. After the new Congress was sworn in, Amash joined a crew of conservatives to vote against John Boehner for Speaker of the House. Amash was famous—and among establishment Republicans, notorious. “Even I’m sick of seeing myself in the paper,” he told a reporter.
Not that sick, though. By the summer, Amash had normalized relations with his leadership and won a vote on an amendment to defund the NSA’s domestic surveillance. When the amendment nearly passed, it altered the way official Washington discussed the NSA, changing the story from senators vs. Snowden to an actual controversy that ran through party lines. Three months later, the 33-year old congressman drew a wealthy and establishment-friendly Republican primary challenger. This was covered as a problem for the Tea Party, but it seemed awfully selective. Of all the “unreasonable” Republicans to go after, the one sweating a challenge was the libertarian who explained his votes on Facebook.
I talked to Amash about the year that was and how he expects 2014 to play out.
David Weigel: Your biggest legislative coup this year was a loss—the NSA amendment that went down narrowly. You’re bringing it up again in 2014. Why would it go differently next time?
Justin Amash: Well, things are going great. The recent court ruling, and the recent push by many of the tech companies puts things firmly on our side going forward. Actually, I've heard from many people about their votes next time, and one of the more prominent members of Congress who's changed his mind on this is Chairman [of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell] Issa. As he's learned more about it, he's come to the conclusion that the NSA has to reform the way it operates.
DW: How did this week’s NSA decision move the votes?
JA: What I took out of the court ruling was that it emphasized a lot of the points that I've been making over the past several months—that in the modern era, if the third party doctrine is applied as it was applied in Smith v. Maryland and extended to modern technologies, the entire Fourth Amendment is wiped away. And the ruling made the very clear case that I’ve also been making, that Smith v. Maryland is not really on point.
DW: It’s not now or it never was?
JA: It’s not now. I don't think it was a very strong ruling at the time, but it’s certainly not applicable to modern surveillance issues. I expect we'll have an opportunity to look at this over the next several months. The Judiciary Committee sounds like it really wants to move forward with legislation. It's pretty clear that most members of Congress are in the USA Freedom Act camp.
DW: How much do you think this year’s NSA leaks moved people on spying? Was this sort of skepticism endemic and it just needed an outlet, or is it new?
JA: There's always been a fair level of mistrust in government. It’s part of our nature, here, as Americans. And that’s good. It’s part of the reason why we started our constitutional republic. But it’s been heightened in recent years, and part of the reason is that technology has really eroded the privacy of so many people. If the government has access to all of our data, we have no privacy anymore.
DW: Have you changed the way you protect your data? Do you have a VPN or something? You do post a lot on Facebook, which isn’t the most privacy-friendly space.
JA: I take the steps I think are appropriate.
DW: You were just telling constituents at a town hall meeting that the budget deal was lousy because it didn’t “compromise.” We’re all covering it, in the media, as a compromise. So what did you mean?
JA: I’ve always said I'm willing to consider anything provided that Democrats are willing to consider Social Security and Medicare. Come on, let's get together and put everything on the table, let’s have a discussion, because we can’t continue the way we’re going. The budget deal didn't change that direction. It wasn’t as if we were making small improvements. That’s not what I voted against.
DW: So, why did it happen, who do you blame?
JA: There's just a reluctance to compromise. The deal is the product of two parties that are unwilling to compromise. One side says, we're unwilling to compromise on military spending; the other side says, we’re unwilling to compromise on Social Security and Medicare. So the deal was to do nothing.
DW: This feels like less than Republicans told themselves they would get when the year started. Not long ago, you had the president on the record to put Social Security cost of living adjustment in a deal.
JA: I think that’s true. Expectations have changed as time has gone on. In fact, we were assured that the sequester would not be changed unless we were able to get major reforms to entitlements. After the Budget Control Act passed in 2011, that was the assurance made to us. Before the vote on the BCA, I remember standing up in conference prior to that deal, and asking our leadership: What if two years from now you decide, or Congress decides, to undo the sequester without compensating with Social Security and Medicare reforms? And the leadership told me, for that to happen, Republicans would have to go along with it. Do you really think that’s going to happen?
DW: It was a rhetorical question?
JA: Oh, they said to me, do you think that’ll happen—as if there was no chance whatsoever that it could.
DW: Did you speak up this time?
JA: I could see the direction things were going. I took a more low-key role.
DW: So, what do you want to be attached to the debt limit when it comes up again?
JA: I’d like to see major reforms to the largest spending programs. That might include Obamacare, but it’s also going to include Social Security and Medicare and military spending.
DW: Paul Ryan came to your district this year to talk about immigration reform. We’re done for 2013; immigration reform hasn’t happened. Are you disappointed?
JA: Yeah. You have to have immigration reform. It's disappointing, it's unfortunate. Part of the problem is the breakdown of trust between the White House and particularly Republicans in Congress, so that many Republicans who were supportive of reform have backed away because they no longer trust that the president will faithfully execute the laws.