David R. Henderson  

One Congressman Can Sometimes Do a Lot, Part I

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This is from a recent speech given by Justin Amash, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan, at Cato University.

His speech is block quoted and the italics are his. My comments follow where appropriate:

What's a libertarian in Congress to do? Today, I want to share with you a couple [of] recent stories that illustrate how my staff and I operate, how it's different from other offices, and how just one person can make a difference in the defense of liberty.

A couple [of] weeks ago, the House considered H.R. 5606, the so-called Anti-terrorism Information Sharing Is Strength Act, or the "Anti-ISIS Act." I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that this bill has little to do with stopping terrorism. It was listed among the suspension bills for the week, meaning leadership intended to have it fast-tracked through the House, skipping committee and all the other normal procedures. In exchange for the fast-track process, suspension bills need a two-thirds majority to pass instead of just a simple majority.


"I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that this bill has little to do with stopping terrorism." Maybe I'm naive but I would have thought it would have a lot do, even if futilely, with stopping terrorism. But read on and you'll see that he's right.
Unlike most offices, my staff and I actually read all the bills--yes, even the suspension bills. The stated reason for ha ving a process to suspend the rules and fast track a bill is that some bills are considered uncontroversial--if few members object to a bill, the idea goes, it would simply be a waste of everyone's time to have it go through the normal committee process. Most offices take leadership at their word when a bill is put on the suspension calendar--they assume that if it's up under suspension, it must be fine. Needless to say, that's not how my office works. We read and think about each and every bill, which is no small undertaking--on Friday night we were given a list of 25 bills that were to be considered the following Monday.

They actually read them. What a pleasant surprise. Good for them.
H.R. 5606 amends a section of the Patriot Act that instructs the Treasury Department to adopt regulations encouraging cooperation between banks and the government, with the "specific purpose of encouraging" the government to share information with banks about persons suspected of terrorism or money laundering. This section also includes a provision that allows banks to share information about these people with each other, without being liable to their customers for sharing their private information.

On the face of it, this law plainly encourages sharing of information from the government to financial institutions. But this is the Patriot Act. "Plain meaning" doesn't apply. Instead, Treasury has used this law to create a program whereby the government can compel financial institutions--22,000 of them--to provide law enforcement the account and transaction information of people they suspect of terrorism or money laundering.

No probable cause. No warrant. No due process.


You can learn a lot by reading carefully.
This program is bad enough as it is, but H.R. 5606 expands the program to cover dozens and dozens of additional federal crimes. Murder, drug offenses, copyright theft ... all the way down to stealing mail. I had to stop this bill, but I didn't have much time.

Now we see why Amash made his earlier claim: drug offenses and copyright theft don't sound a lot like terrorism.
We spent the weekend drafting materials to oppose the bill, and, of course, I took the fight to social media. On Monday morning, I issued a vote alert on the bill through the House Liberty Caucus, of which I'm chairman. Throughout the day, I lobbied my colleagues personally, and my staff lobbied other offices through emails and phone calls.

I love the "of course, I took the fight to social media."
On Monday afternoon, I went to the floor early to make sure there would be an actual vote on the bill. You see, House leaders often pass suspension bills with only a few members present. Votes are officially scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on the first voting day of the week, but leaders typically voice vote suspension bills in the afternoon before most members are even back in town! How do they do that without a quorum? Well, if no one is on the floor to object to the lack of quorum, they simply ignore the quorum requirement!

I had always wondered about this. I now have my real-world information about how the House works. New movie title: "Mr. Amash Goes to Washington"
So, I made sure I was there on time for the floor debate. Sure enough, both Republican and Democratic leaders had planned to pass this expansion of the Patriot Act by voice vote! Under the rules, did I have enough support to demand a roll call? No. But they didn't have enough members for a quorum. I asked for the yeas and nays to secure a roll call vote for that evening. And they granted me the roll call, knowing that I could stall the entire process simply by objecting to the lack of quorum. At 6:30 p.m., just before votes, the scheduling email came out from the whip team. They had changed the order of the votes to put the Patriot Act bill last. This is usually done to give leadership time to convince members on the floor to support the bill, so I knew leadership must have been at least a little concerned by my actions.

Republican and Democratic leaders attacking our civil liberties? This is the least surprising of all the paragraphs. I love Amash's strategic thinking.
The vote series started. I brought copies of the vote alert from the House Liberty Caucus with me to the floor and passed them out to my colleagues as we voted on the other bills. Then we got to the last vote in the series, a two-minute vote on the Patriot Act bill. And, to everyone's surprise, it failed. It had 229 yeas, 177 nays, but it needed two-thirds because it was considered under suspension.

It failed.


Wow! The power of one man out of 435.
Think about that. It's not as if bills never fail on the floor, but it is exceedingly rare--it happens only a few times a year, if at all. My office learned about the bill only three days ahead of the vote, and when Monday morning rolled around, we had less than 12 hours to put out our material and lobby other offices. No one was talking about this bill except for my staff and me--not the outside groups, not other members who care about these issues, because no one was paying any attention to it. Without our efforts, this bill would have passed 400-and-something to 2 or 3, maybe 4.

Part II will follow, along with some lessons for Public Choice, in a day or two.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory




COMMENTS (9 to date)
Rich Berger writes:

IIRC, the Republican leadership hates Amash. If you want one big reason for Trump, it's that the Republican voters are disgusted with the Republican leadership.

Scott Sumner writes:

That's inspiring!

Rich, Trump would also hate Amash, as Trump is the most anti-civil liberties candidate I've ever seen. Trump seems to want no limits placed on the president's power. For instance, he says he'll "stop" the press from printing so many anti-Trump stories, and he wants to tighten up our libel laws to make things harder for the media. He wants to bring back torture, and much worse types of torture than we did before.

Republican voters are disgusted with GOP leaders because the government spends so much money. But Trump wants the government to spend far more.

Robert D. writes:

I live in Michigan and I can confirm Republican leadership loath him. During the Republican primary for his district (MI-3 covering the Grand Rapids area) the Republican leadership worked with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce to try and unseat Amash with a 2014 primary challenge.* From what I understand the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce was unhappy with Representative Amash's unwillingness to use his position to grant favors to businesses. The primary was particularly nasty as well, with the challenger calling Amash "Al-Qaeda's best friend in Congress" because he opposed the Patriot Act. Rep. Amash was rather blunt towards his competition after winning the primary here and here.

*The MI-3 and MI-4 (covering the Midland area) are probably the only Republican strongholds in the state, and winning the primary usually determines who will carry the district.

Joey Donuts writes:

What a guy! More like him would make things better.

Scott, I do not support Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton. Your antagonism towards Trump probably has many sources. Your claims that Trump said this or that reminded me of an encounter with my brother who claimed that George Bush said that God had instructed him to invade Iraq. I asked him where he had read or heard that. He initially claimed he said it during a State of the Union Address. When pushed, he couldn't document the claim at all. I'm sure you wouldn't make a claim that DT said anything without some evidence that he did. I don't follow politics closely and it would help me and others that don't share your detailed knowledge of the campaign if you cited times and places where DT made such statements or statements. Without such evidence your statements become nothing more than rumors.

john hare writes:

A pie in the sky thought. What if it was illegal to vote on a bill not read and understood under penalty of perjury.

BC writes:

@Robert D, what are the demographics of Amash's district that makes it so friendly to a libertarian?

Robert D. writes:

@BC Nothing. Rep Amash doesn't run as a libertarian, he runs as a Republican. This article from MLive would be a fair, albeit older, description of Rep. Amash.

I don't live close to Grand Rapids, but I suspect being the Republican incumbent in a staunchly Republican district has more to do with him being re-elected than any libertarian leanings he has.

Rich H writes:

Mr. Donuts, here is the video about Trump stating his opinion regarding libel laws: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9PCPtcsgnc

[broken html removed--Econlib Ed.]

Joey Donuts writes:

Rich:

Thanks, but is that all?

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