Justin Amash Speaks at His Town Hall in Grand Rapids, May 28th
For constitutional conservatives in the United States, the only good candidate for President in 2020 is Justin Amash. The most likely possibility would be running as the Libertarian Party candidate, which would follow from Amash's complaint that the two-party system has failed, and that there needs to be a new party system.
That was clear to me after I attended his town hall gathering last night in Grand Rapids. As many as a thousand people turned out. Much of the energy at this town hall meeting was stirred by Amash's recent public statements that from his reading of the Mueller Report it was clear that Donald Trump had committed impeachable offenses. This has drawn national attention to Amash as the first Republican in Congress calling for Trump's impeachment. (An article in the Detroit News on this town hall includes a few quotations from me.)
I live in the 3rd Congressional District of Michigan, which has been represented by Amash since 2010, when he was elected as a Tea Party candidate arguing for the constitutional principles of limited government, Congressional deliberation, and fiscal responsibility. Shortly after his election to the House, he founded the House Liberty Caucus as a organization for House members who remain committed to the Tea Party principles of constitutional government and liberty.
Today, most Republican leaders have no interest in constitutional limited government, because they want Trump to rule without any serious limits from the Congress; and so, for example, they don't want to take seriously the impeachment power of the Congress as one of the constraints on presidential abuse of power designed by the Founders.
Most Republican leaders have no interest in Congressional deliberation, because they agree with the Democratic leaders that the process of lawmaking in the Congress should be controlled by the party leaders to enforce the strict party line without allowing congressmen to exercise their individual judgment in a deliberative process.
And most Republican leaders have no interest in fiscal responsibility, because they are happy to increase federal spending through endlessly increasing federal debt, with the thought that the inevitable debt crisis is too far off to matter to them.
Amash stressed all three of these points in the town hall meeting. In his opening statement and in his responses to questions, he carefully led his audience through the principles of American constitutionalism, the process of lawmaking in the House of Representatives, and the precepts of classical liberal political thought. I have never seen a politician speak to a popular audience like this, as if he were teaching a college class in political science. When I taught political science at Northern Illinois University, I would have been happy to engage my students the way Amash engaged this audience.
And I have to say these Amash supporters are really, really nerdy! I saw people in the audience with copies of the Mueller Report in their laps, and they were all talking about their reading of the whole 448 pages of the report. At least it's good to know that I belong to the great community of Nerds in America.
Amash's opening statement was a defense of his conclusion that Mueller's report proves that Trump is impeachable. Amash then elaborated his reasoning on impeachment in some of his responses to questions.
As indicated by my post on the Mueller Report and impeachment earlier this month, I mostly agree with Amash, but I might disagree with Amash on two points about which he was silent.
As I have said, the American Founders made the President impeachable by Congress as one of the ways to prevent the President from becoming an elected monarch. The impeachment power of the British Parliament did not extend to the King, who could not be impeached or tried for crimes. For the first time in history, the Americans after 1776 made the chief executives of their governments--the state governors and the U.S. President--subject to impeachment by the legislatures. In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton emphasized that this impeachment of the president was one crucial factor in insuring that the president could not become an elected king. (One member of the audience at the town hall quoted from Hamilton on this.)
Amash cited this evidence from the American Founders as showing the importance of impeachment by Congress as one way the Congress keeps the president from becoming a monarch. And, so, he argued, the Congress has a constitutional duty to impeach the president when he has abused his powers.
This started a long discussion with audience members about whether there was sufficient evidence to impeach Trump. The Trump supporters insisted vehemently that the Mueller Report had not shown that Trump had committed any indictable crimes such as obstruction of justice. Amash responded by quoting from the Constitution and from the American Founders to support the idea that impeachment is not a judicial judgment of crime but a political judgment of abuse of power. He indicated, correctly, that some of the Founders thought that the president could be rightly impeached for "maladministration," although Amash suggested that this might go too far for him.
Amash then pointed to his Twitter statements summarizing the factual indictment of the President in the Mueller Report showing that Trump had indeed obstructed justice and thus abused his powers, although there was not sufficient evidence (beyond a reasonable doubt) for indicting Trump for a crime.
Amash worried that a failure to impeach Trump where the evidence for abuse of power is so clear would send the message that Congress will never impeach a President, which would deny the expectation of the Founders that impeachment of the President should be a frequent check on presidential power. In fact, only two presidents have been impeached by the House (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), and neither was convicted by the Senate.
Although I agree with Amash on all of these points, I disagree with his silence about two reasons why the Congress has failed to exercise its constitutional power for impeachment. The first reason is that Congress has chosen to abdicate its power of impeachment investigation by turning this over to "special prosecutors" appointed by the Department of Justice. The Constitution says nothing about this, and it violates the constitutional understanding that impeachment is a congressional power that should not be delegated to the Executive Branch. That the Congress has not had full control over the Mueller investigation or over the release of the Mueller Report is a consequence of the Congress's mistake in allowing the Department of Justice to take control of this investigation, which has put it under the control of the President. Amash has not recognized this problem.
In Robert Mueller's public statement this morning at the Department of Justice, there is one crucial sentence that bears on this point: "The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing." Of course, the constitutional process to which he is referring is impeachment by Congress. A special prosecutor in the Department of Justice cannot conduct an impeachment investigation, Mueller is suggesting, because that belongs to the Congress; and because an impeachment investigation of presidential wrongdoing does not belong to the criminal justice system. So Mueller is saying is that the Mueller Report cannot decide whether Trump should be impeached, which is a decision constitutionally given to the Congress, but the Report can provide the Congress the factual evidence supporting the conclusion that Trump has abused his powers in a way that is impeachable by Congress, regardless of whether the President has committed an indictable crime. That's exactly what Amash has said.
The second reason for the failure of Congress to exercise its impeachment power is a flaw in the Constitution itself--the requirement of a supermajority (2/3) in the Senate for an impeachment conviction. As I indicated in my earlier post, this lowers the minimum winning coalition for the president to 34 Senators obstructing impeachment. Today, there are 41 Republican Senators; and so conviction of Trump would require that all of the Democratic Senators and at least 8 of the Republican Senators would have to vote for impeachment. So even if Trump is impeachable by the House, it is highly unlikely that he will be convicted by the Senate, particularly considering the highly partisan politics on Capital Hill that Amash bemoans. This has rendered the impeachment power largely ineffective in checking the propensity of the president to become an elected monarch. This mistake of the Constitutional Framers arose from the fear of some of them that a simple majority requirement for impeachment might promote "legislative tyranny." Many of them did not foresee that the real problem in American government would be "executive tyranny" unconstrained by the Congress, which was created by the American Progressives who pushed for "presidential leadership" at the top of the federal government.
THE FAILURE OF CONGRESSIONAL DELIBERATION
The second major theme of Amash's comments at the town hall was the importance of understanding how both Republican leaders (like Paul Ryan) and Democratic leaders (like Nancy Pelosi) have corrupted the process of lawmaking in the House to enforce a rigid party-line vote as dictated by the party leaders that suppresses congressional deliberation. Remarkably, Amash observed, the public never hears about this as the explanation for mindless partisanship in the Congress, the lack of open deliberation in Congress, and the expansion of presidential power.
At the beginning of every new two-year House session, Amash explained, the House member enact the "Rules of the House," the basis legislative procedures that have developed over 200 years since the Constitutional founding. But then, beginning when Paul Ryan was Speaker of the House, the Speaker has started every week of the session by proposing a suspension of the rules, which allows bills to be passed with limited debate and without allowing any floor amendments. The House leadership forces party members to vote for this suspension of the rules by threatening them with punishment if they don't: they won't get good committee assignments, and they won't receive party support for re-election.
With limited debate on each bill (an average of 13 minutes) and with no floor amendments allowed, there is no deliberation among the members of the House; and instead the bills pass as they were written by the House leadership. In the 114th Congress (2015-2016), 83% of the House bills were considered under suspension.
As a result of this, congressmen are not permitted to think for themselves, because everything is dictated to them by the House leadership. The congressmen are forced into a mindless partisan divide--Republicans versus Democrats--because they are not allowed to disagree with their party leaders, and perhaps work with people in the other party. This also means that the President does not have to worry about working with individual congressmen, because he needs only to work with the party leaders.
One indication of this, Amash noted, is that in the House, most members vote with their party about 95% to 99% of the time. Amash votes about 70% of the time with the Republicans, and he is punished by the party leaders for not being a good party member!
Amash asked the audience to imagine how different politics would be if Congress were a deliberative body where each member could think for himself or herself without having to sacrifice one's principles in blindly following the party leadership. Instead of this, Amash observed, what one sees in the Congress is that members give up thinking and give up all of their principles to please their party leaders, and as a result they become soulless zombies
Amash is one of the few members of Congress who breaks away from this. He is famous as being perhaps the only member of Congress who actually reads every piece of legislation before he votes on it, and then explains his vote on every bill on his Facebook page.
Amash's third point was how the Republicans--and particularly, the Tea Party candidates--have betrayed their promise of fiscal responsibility. A few months ago, the national debt went over $22 trillion dollars for the first time in American history; and the yearly federal budget deficit is getting close to $1 trillion dollars, with no end in sight. There are reports that when people in the White House tried to get Trump interested in the need to reduce the national debt to avoid a debt crisis, he responded by saying something like, Why should I care if there's debt crisis after I'm gone?
Well, Amash cares, and he emphasized at the town hall that he has asked for more spending cuts than anyone else in Congress. We can be sure that if he runs for President, he will be the only candidate willing to talk about the debt crisis.
I don't see any other potential candidate for the presidency willing to speak, in such an engaging and intelligent way, about constitutional government, the need for legislative deliberation, and fiscal austerity in order to have a government that secures personal and economic liberty.
My wife tells me I shouldn't overlook his biggest advantage--he's so young and good looking.
I should also add one qualification to my earlier suggestion that Amash could run as the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party. Amash has publicly declared that he believes that life begins at conception, and therefore abortion denies the right to life and is murder. This contradicts the position of the Libertarian Party that abortion is a free choice of "individual conscience." If he were to run as the Libertarian Party candidate for President, he would have to disagree with this position.