One Congressman Can Sometimes Do a Lot, Part II
By David Henderson
I posted yesterday about Justin Amash’s Cato University speech. Below is most of the rest of it. I’m putting his parts in block quotes. The italics are his. My comments follow where appropriate. I’ll end with comments on Public Choice.
We hear so often: “I’m only one person. What can I possibly do?” Well, I’m here to tell you firsthand that one person’s efforts really can make a difference. But making that difference doesn’t happen overnight. You have to lay the groundwork. In this case, it wouldn’t have been possible if my staff and I didn’t operate the way that we do–if we didn’t believe strongly in following the Constitution, in reading every bill, in consistency and the rule of law. These things have earned me trust from my colleagues–especially on due process, civil liberties, and privacy–and respect from other offices for my staff.
We do hear that. And my own view had been that while a U.S. Senator might have some power, a lone member of the House of Representatives could not. But he makes a good point: it’s partly about brand name and reputation.
A few weeks earlier, in mid-June, the Orlando shooting happened. The following week, a bill called the Homeland Safety and Security Act, H.R. 5611, appeared on the legislative calendar. It was introduced by Majority Leader McCarthy as a response to Orlando, and it included one short, terrifying section that mirrored the Republican-backed Cornyn proposal the Senate had voted down the week before. It allowed the Department of Justice and a judge to deny gun purchases to anyone investigated for terrorism within the last five years (i.e., on one of those secret government lists) merely upon probable cause to believe that the person will commit an act of terrorism. Not that the person had committed an act of terrorism, or had conspired or attempted to commit terrorism, but that he or she will commit terrorism in the future.
McCarthy seemed to think that government is almost mistake-free. It’s good that Justin Amash was there.
Having judges make factual, legally binding determinations of what an innocent person will do is not the practice of a free society–it’s precrime; it’s something out of the film Minority Report. Due process requires more.
Exactly. Minority Report was supposed to be a fictional warning, not a handbook.
We issued a statement through the House Liberty Caucus, blasting the bill and telling my colleagues we would be scoring against it. I filed an amendment to strike the gun section from the bill. That night, I went to a meeting of the House Freedom Caucus (not to be confused with the House Liberty Caucus!). At the start of the day, almost no one else opposed the bill–at best, they were neutral–but one by one, members were convinced to oppose it. And before the meeting adjourned, HFC took an official position against it. The Democrats also were expected to oppose it (because it wasn’t dystopian enough), so without HFC’s support, the bill didn’t have enough votes to pass. Soon after, leadership quietly pulled it from the calendar. We never voted on it.
Speaker Ryan was later asked about the bill at a press conference, and he said, “We’re not going to take away a citizen’s constitutional rights without due process.” Remember, this was the Cornyn proposal that Republicans had been lauding. This was Republican leadership’s bill in the House. It was offered by the majority leader. It was supposed to pass with overwhelming Republican support. But here was Speaker Ryan on TV suggesting it violated due process! I had made the constitutional argument that convinced my colleagues, and here it was, being echoed in the speaker’s remarks.
In short, one man turned Speaker Ryan around.
Now, this victory, along with the other victories over the past couple [of] months, was modest. But these are just small examples of what’s possible with this approach to legislating. Abiding by the Constitution, upholding the rule of law, and applying principles consistently doesn’t just allow me to take the right votes–it also makes me more effective at defending liberty in the halls of Congress.
It’s this kind of story that causes me to think that Public Choice theory is fairly undeterminative. Who could have predicted that one man could turn things around like that. The bills were potentially big bills with huge consequences. Where were the interest groups? What would Public Choice theorists have predicted? Is the theory so fragile that in some cases it can be refuted by one member of a 435-member body?