One Congressman Can Sometimes Do a Lot, Part I
By David Henderson
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.
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.