In order to commemorate Constitution Day, the University of Michigan invited Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich, to speak. The former undergraduate and Michigan law alum represents Michigan’s 3rd District. While the first half of the lecture largely centered around how Amash’s philosophy as a public servant centers around the powers of the constitution, he also spoke about political theatrics and the grim side of Congress.
The conversation was moderated by Richard Primus, a Theodore J. St. Antoine Collegiate Professor of Law. Primus, who has previously clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, acknowledged that while he differs with Amash ideologically, he values their political discourse.
“We disagree on things like taxation, health insurance, foreign policy,” Primus said. “We disagree in the constitutional realm about things like from the proper allocation of power among the federal government to the states. And these disagreements matter. They matter a lot. If Mr. Amash didn’t think they mattered, he wouldn’t be in public life. But when I talk with him about Constitutional law, I know that I am talking to someone who has a deep commitment to be principled in the conversation and to act upon the principles he arrives at.”
Primus used to be Amash’s Common Law professor and fondly recounts teaching Amash. He remembers Amash always having deep reverence for the Constitution.
“Mr. Amash sat, I think fourth row, and in the middle,” Primus said. “Almost in the center of the group. This spatially was not a reflection of his place in politic. But, it was a marker of his intention to engage seriously in the subject matter. Dead center, straight up. He cared about it deeply.”
Amash cites the Constitution as the cornerstone of his philosophy as a public servant. He discusses how there were several instances when he as a conservative, could not vote for specific bills that he supported ideologically because they infringed the Constitution.
“My dedication to the Constitution is what I am best known for in Congress,” Amash said. “In eight and a half years there, I have had to oppose countless bills that had no constitutional basis, or violated a constitutional provision. In many instances, I supported the bill’s policy changes but could not support the bill because of constitutional issues.”
Amash recalled when House Republicans introduced the National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act in 2011, which would allow nonresidents of a state to carry concealed weapons in that state. Amash noted that while he supports the right to carry permit reciprocity, he could not support the bill because there is no constitutional basis.
“I opposed the bill because it was drafted specifically to rely on the commerce clause. Private individuals carrying firearms isn’t commerce,” Amash said. “So this law can not be passed using Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.”
When the lecture opened to a question and answer portion, Amash detailed his various grievances with the political stagnation. Earlier this year, Amash left the Republican Party and cited growing partisanship as his reason for leaving the two-party system.
“A lot of my colleagues who got frustrated just left, you know?” Amash said. “They gave up. They were tired. I’m sure you see it in the news all the time. They all pretend it’s a family consideration but they are really sick of the president in many cases.
Amash cited his disillusion with the lack of legislation being passed and how the Republican Party no longer represents his ideologies.
“I went to Congress with the idea that we would change things incrementally, that I would go in there revive the Republican Party and turn it into a party that cares about liberty and process and cares about our constitution,” Amash said. “But I found that it's just impossible, and that it can’t be changed anymore.”
Amash was the only Republican in the House of Representatives to call for President Trump’s impeachment. He notes how every term has predictable obstacles with the same solutions that rarely provide long term and constructive solutions.
“More than it used to be it’s political theatre,” Amash said. “It operates largely as performance art. When I look back on a term I kind of know how each term is going to go. Like at some point … there’s going to be a government shutdown. Then, the president and the two leaders come to some sort of compromise. And at the end of the year, very little happens legislatively except another omnibus bill is passed, more money is spent.”
Amash left the audience with a parting message to remind people of the fragility of the American democratic system.
“I came here partly to give you a grim perspective,” Amash said. “I don’t think it's good for people to think it works like you know ‘I’m just a bill’. It’s not ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’ It doesn’t work that way. We need to be frightened, we need to be worried about it.”
While Amash may have intended to leave his audience worried for the future of a democratic government, his lecture inspired LSA freshman Charles Hilu.
“I think this supplemented a love for the Constitution that I already have and more food for thought in terms of the constitutional questions in our current political systems,” Hilu said.
Law School student Ameya Gehi also said she was surprised by how candid Amash in regards with all of the behind the scenes politics.
“I think he was really principled and I was surprised on how honest he was about saying whether he thought something was constitutional or not,” Gehi said. “He wasn’t scared about being transparent about what goes on in the bill making process.”