January 15, 2020

ESCAPING THE CULT:

Justin Amash Has a Decision to Make (Declan Garvey, 1/14/20, The Dispatch)

The son of two immigrants, he graduated high school valedictorian of his class and earned his bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Michigan, sticking around Ann Arbor long enough to nab a law degree as well.

But he is disloyal--at least in the Trumpian sense of the word. Amash has voted in line with Trump's position just 63 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight, a lower "Trump score" than any Republican save Walter Jones, who passed away last February, and Jeff Van Drew, who was a Democrat until about four weeks ago. Amash spent his final few months in the GOP calling for the president to be impeached, much to the joy of Democrats and some of his constituents, but much to the chagrin of everyone in his own party.

Amash isn't any less libertarian now than he was when he rode the Tea Party wave to D.C. in 2010, just two years after being elected to the Michigan House of Representatives. He'd contend it's those around him who've changed.

On January 26, 2015, Amash and a group of eight other Republican congressmen (all men) formed the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) to stand up to a House leadership--then helmed by Speaker John Boehner--that they believed wasn't conservative enough. Amash wrote the mission statement.

"The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety, and prosperity of all Americans."

On May 20, 2019, the bloc, now boasting more than 30 members, unanimously condemned their co-founder when Amash determined--after the release of the Mueller Report--that President Trump had "engaged in impeachable conduct." Three-and-a-half weeks later, Amash quit the group of limited-government stalwarts he helped create.

They "sanctioned him for coming out in favor of impeachment in the same week that like, they increased the debt by another trillion dollars or something," Welch said, referring to a two-year budget deal that was floated at the time, but ultimately never came to fruition. "It's like, what is the use of this group?"

"As soon as you had a Republican president, and especially one who is fairly charismatic and entertaining and can rally a lot of people," Amash said, choosing his words very carefully, "Republicans totally mailed it in. They said, 'Look, we're just going to go with this guy on everything.' And when I started to see even my House Freedom Caucus colleagues do that, it was really disheartening."

"This is a group that had formed," he continued, "for the purpose of standing on principle, standing up for the American people, doing what was right, ensuring that all voices were heard. And now, the group had moved more toward Trump cheerleading and that's not why the group was formed. And that was really tough."

Not everyone in Washington would agree with Amash's assessment of the caucus, which, once it grew large enough, wielded its influence to hold Republican leaders hostage and otherwise wreak havoc on the legislative process.

"Previously, groups of members on the right flank of the House Republican Conference operated under a version of the 'Buckley Rule': they fought for the most conservative legislation that could pass," said Michael Steel, former aide to Speaker John Boehner. "The self-described 'Freedom Caucus' often seemed more about the fight than the result, and--when they chose not to get to 'yes' on must-pass bills--the House Republican leadership had to go to Democrats for votes, leading to worse policies and higher spending."

When Trump was first elected, many wondered if the House Freedom Caucus would even continue to serve a purpose. After all, the GOP center of gravity no longer revolved around the speaker of the House. But the HFC made its presence known early on in 2017, scuttling the White House's first attempt to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. 

"The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast," Trump wrote at the time. "We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!"

Now? One of the caucus's founding members, Mick Mulvaney, serves as Trump's chief of staff. Another, Mark Meadows, is one of the president's most enthusiastic advocates, and is rumored to be Mulvaney's replacement in waiting.

Amash believes the co-opting of the Freedom Caucus was no accident. "I think that was intentional," he said. "Whether it was the president's calculation or someone else's, to try to take some of the House Freedom Caucus members and bring them into the fold ... I think this was a concerted effort by leadership and perhaps White House officials to pick off House Freedom Caucus members, to bring them in, to make them a part of the Republican team, in some sense, and then get them to stop battling Republicans."

While his old Freedom Caucus buddies may have finally stopped battling Republicans under Trump, Amash was just getting started. But he claims his newfound independence has actually improved his connections on the Hill. 

"I have better relationships with Republicans and with Democrats. When you're a Republican and you break from the Republicans on a piece of legislation or you disagree with the president or whatever it might be, they tend to come down hard on you because it's like you're a family member who has betrayed the family," he said. "Since becoming an independent, my colleagues are more trusting. They are friendlier, on both sides of the aisle, and it's certainly been an improvement on the Republican side."

Efforts to talk to his peers about this bore little fruit. A spokeswoman for the House Freedom Caucus declined to comment for the story, and no individual members contacted responded to emails from The Dispatch.

"I think John Boehner is the best speaker that we've had since I've been here," said Amash. "And I say that as someone who tried to oust him from the speakership!"

This sentiment doesn't represent a newfound appreciation for the Republican establishment or hint at new moderation from Amash. Instead, it's a reflection of his belief in having big, messy debates--not avoiding them.

"If I were to create, like, an ideal speaker in my imagination, it would not be John Boehner," Amash said. But in retrospect, "his successors are not better than him."

"Boehner would swear at me, he would curse me, he would criticize me in public," Amash recounted with a grin, almost fondly. "But he also, in some sense, would listen. He didn't dismiss you totally. You could engage with him. You could have some back and forth. He might swear at you, but then also allow you to have an amendment vote."

Never too late to try to repair the damage you did.
Posted by at January 15, 2020 12:00 AM

  

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