Politics

07.25.13

What Did You Do During the War on Terror?

Michigan’s Justin Amash and John Conyers—and a rag-tag band of Republican and Democratic mavericks—are fighting for your civil liberties whether you like it or not.

This is what bipartisanship looks like—and it looks pretty damn fresh.

Yesterday, a bill co-sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) that would have brought NSA domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens into rough compliance with the Constitution nearly passed the House of Representatives in a razor-thin loss. Ninety-four Republicans and 111 Democrats broke ranks with their party’s leadership in the losing 205–217 effort (a dozen members didn’t vote).

Amash—singled out by name by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as a “wacko bird” after Sen. Rand Paul’s epic filibuster over the Obama administration’s drone policy—has emerged as the leader of a pack of unapologetically libertarian-leaning Republicans who vote their principles rather than their party. Like Rand Paul—who has worked with liberal Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and other Democrats on specific issues related to civil liberties—Amash shows that bipartisanship is not only possible but that it doesn’t have to be an exercise in mushy, centrist, logrolling compromise. For Amash, it’s not about splitting the difference between a turd sandwich and a giant douche, it’s about bringing votes to your side by standing up for core beliefs. No wonder GOP leaders have taken to calling Amash and others like him “assholes.”

The Amash-Conyers Amendment was attached to a $598 billion defense-spending bill that passed easily and would have, writes Amash, ended the “NSA’s blanket collection of Americans’ telephone records. It does this by requiring the FISA court under Sec. 215 [of the Patriot Act] to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation.”

In a characteristically lucid explanation posted on his Facebook page (Amash gives reasons for all his votes there), the University of Michigan Law grad underscores that the bill wouldn’t have forbidden legitimate investigations into suspected terrorist activity, but it would have provided clear limits on the government’s at-will ability to vacuum up phone and other metadata. Amash’s interest in small government doesn’t end with cutting cowboy-poetry readings and agricultural subsidies (he voted against the recent farm bill because it increases spending on subsidies and crop insurance).

Apart from being from Michigan, Amash and Conyers don’t have much in common. The son of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, Amash is barely in his 30s and barely in his second term. Conyers has been in office longer than Amash has been alive (indeed, he was on Nixon’s enemies list before Amash was born). Amash is a hardcore libertarian Republican whose office walls are plastered with portraits of free-market, “Austrian School” economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard (about the only Austrian not represented is The Sound of Music’s Captain von Trapp). Conyers is a liberal’s liberal who helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, has pushed nationalized health care for decades, sued George W. Bush over the 2005 budget, and thinks that the Ohio vote in 2004 was rigged.

“As you go home for August recess, you will be asked: Did you oppose the suspicionless collection of every American’s phone records?”

But when it comes to civil liberties and some other related issues, Amash and Conyers—and many of their colleagues—can pull together across party lines. Indeed, successful amendments to the defense bill pushed by Tea Party favorites Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Trey Radel (R-FL) unambiguously limit U.S. aid and involvement in Egypt and Syria without congressional oversight. Such victories are, as McClatchy’s William Douglass and Hannah Allam put it, the result of “an unusual House coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.”

Unlike the situational hawks and doves of both parties—whose interest in bombing foreign countries and limiting executive-branch overreach tends to wax and wane depending on who’s sitting in the Oval Office—don’t expect Amash, Massie, and the others to flip their wigs if and when the GOP wins back the Senate or the White House.

In a stinging note to his House colleagues, Amash wrote on Facebook, “As you go home for August recess, you will be asked: Did you oppose the suspicionless collection of every American’s phone records? When you had the chance to stand up for Americans’ privacy, did you?”

Which brings us to another form of bipartisanship—one that looks pretty damn ugly. Speaking not just for the Obama administration and the Democrats but for the majority of Republicans who ultimately voted against limiting the NSA, presidential mouthpiece Jay Carney said that his boss “welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens” even as he acknowledged that Obama wants to talk about such matters only “in light of the recent unauthorized disclosures” by Edward Snowden and other leakers. But the time for talk, Carney emphasized right before the vote on the defense-spending bill, should come only after the issue is settled: “We urge the House to reject the Amash Amendment.”

On the narrow issue of a vote to limit and defund the NSA, Obama, pro-war Democrats, and what can only be called the “Angry Bird” caucus of the GOP have won the day.

But the bipartisan effort on civil liberties being led by Justin Amash is likely to win the longer struggle because it proceeds from deep-seated principle rather than lip-service politics. Years from now, when the fever over the threat of Islamo-fascism has broken and all the government’s abuses in the name of protecting Oklahomans from the imposition of Sharia and Floridians safe from exploding water parks have fully come to light, both Obama and Amash will have to look their kids in the eye and answer the question, “Daddy, what did you do during the War on Terror?”

One of them will be able to say without hesitation that he consistently stood up for transparency, the rule of law, and the idea that the government doesn’t have the right to watch you simply because it can. Who knows what Obama will say?