Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a 33-year-old Ron Paul disciple, has long been viewed by his peers as little more than a legislative renegade. Obsessed with branding himself as Paul's libertarian heir apparent in the House, Amash rarely votes for GOP legislation. His unwillingness to support party initiatives led Speaker John Boehner to boot Amash from a key committee in December 2012, which led the congressman to organize an unsuccessful coup in January 2013 aimed at ousting Boehner from the speakership. For the House Republican leadership, Amash is a reliably unreliable vote.
But in a sign of the rising libertarian tide in the Congress, Amash on Wednesday captured Washington's attention with an amendment aimed at blocking the National Security Agency (NSA) from collecting a dragnet of domestic phone records. The second-term congressman, known more for obstructing than orchestrating, raised eyebrows across the Capitol by taking on perhaps the most powerful coalition imaginable in Washington -- the White House, the military, the intelligence community and leadership of both parties -- and almost winning. Amash, leading his unlikely coalition of privacy-minded conservatives and liberal defense critics, saw his amendment fail by a 12-vote margin.
It was, without question, a seminal moment in Amash's political career.
There are no moral victories in Washington. But for a sophomore lawmaker to coordinate a bipartisan offensive against Washington's most powerful institutions -- and emerge with even greater influence -- is unprecedented. To watch lawmakers congratulate the Michigan Republican after his near-victory Wednesday was to witness a widespread recognition that, like Rand Paul in the Senate, Justin Amash has become the face of libertarianism in the House.
Amash's amendment targeted section 215 of the Patriot Act, the amendment would require FISA courts to demonstrate that targeted records are pertinent to persons under investigation. The amendment was co-authored by Democratic Rep. John Conyers, Amash's fellow Michigander and the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee.
A week ago, it seemed unlikely that the amendment would even reach the floor for a vote. Amash, after all, has been a punch line in establishment Republican circles since he came to Congress in 2010. Because of his history with Boehner, it's unlikely that Amash could have convinced leadership to give his amendment a vote on his own accord. But Boehner, perhaps recognizing that many of his members wanted a vote on the NSA surveillance policies -- recently uncovered by a series of leaks from Edward Snowden -- allowed the amendment to reach the floor.
The speaker nearly got more than he bargained for. Not only were conservative Republicans rallying behind what they viewed as a limited-government proposal, but liberal Democrats, many of whom had voted against the Patriot Act years ago, were energized by the idea of reining in the NSA's domestic surveillance capabilities.
This convergence of far-right and far-left -- "the wingnut coalition," joked Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, Amash's closest friend in Congress – allowed Amash to come within seven votes of winning a majority.
As word got around early in the week that Amash's amendment was gaining support, a sleeping giant awoke. Soon, an opposing coalition -- one bigger and decidedly more powerful than Amash's -- was pulling out the stops. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., whose contempt for Amash is well-documented, began circulating a letter to colleagues urging them to oppose the amendment. On Tuesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, delivered a four-hour classified briefing to lawmakers in support of the surveillance program. That same day, the Heritage Foundation published a paper calling the amendment "probably unwise and possibly unconstitutional."
In the most telling development, the White House released an unusual late-night statement Tuesday blasting the "blunt approach" taken by Amash and urging opposition to his amendment.
On Wednesday morning, with the vote scheduled for that afternoon, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling Amash's effort "a personal crusade" and suggesting that Republicans who voted in favor were essentially supporting Snowden. By mid-afternoon, word began circulating that both House leadership teams -- the Republicans led by Boehner, and the Democrats led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi -- were quietly urging their members to oppose the amendment.
By the time debate began Wednesday evening, reporters swarmed the press gallery and lawmakers buzzed on the House floor. Amash sounded jittery in his opening remarks. "We're here today for a very simple reason: To defend the Fourth Amendment," he said. Amash quickly took aim at his chief critics, including Rogers, sitting several feet away. "They'll tell you there's no expectation of privacy in documents that are stored with a third party," said Amash, adding with emphasis: "Tell that to the American people! Tell that to our constituents back home!"
Within moments, Rogers was speaking for the opposition. Acknowledging that "some well-intentioned members" have "legitimate concerns" about the NSA surveillance policies, the Intelligence chairman proceeded to pummel Amash and his posse. They need "time and education" to understand how the programs work, Rogers said, referencing a collection of federal judges and bipartisan lawmakers who have reviewed the policy and agreed on its constitutionality. "Those who know it best support the program," Rogers said. Warning that "passing this amendment takes us back to Sept. 10th," Rogers pointed to 54 instances in which terrorist attacks were "stopped and thwarted" by the program.
Then Rogers went for the jugular. Referencing the "big" things accomplished by former House members to keep America safe, he asked, disdain dripping from his every word, "Are we so small that we can only look at our Facebook 'likes' today in this chamber?" It was a clear and unmistakable shot at Amash, who enjoys a large social media following and explains every one of his votes on Facebook.
Amash didn't appear rattled. Instead, he began surgically dishing out speaking time to his team of supporters, a bipartisan group that included, among others, Conyers, Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, and the star witness, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who chaired the Judiciary Committee after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and helped author the Patriot Act.
When debate time elapsed, and voting began, an air of excited uncertainty hovered over the House chamber. It had always been assumed that Amash would fall short. But now, as the tallies grew closer, lawmakers glued their eyes to the scoreboard, and reporters wondered aloud: Could he actually win?
Not quite. The final vote was 205-217, a 12-vote margin of defeat, with another 12 members not voting at all. (This group did not include Boehner, who took the unusual step of voting on an amendment, and was seen celebrating its defeat.) Had just seven members switched their votes, the amendment would have been adopted. Justin Amash would have won, and the Washington establishment would have lost.
The lower chamber buzzed with energy after the defeat was announced, and supporters swarmed Amash to congratulate him. A loss in politics is rarely worth celebrating, but in this case, Amash's comrades had good cause.
The battle was lost, but the war was just beginning. And for civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle, a general had been found.