An Innovative, Dark Horse Bid For Speaker
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Libertarian former Representative Justin Amash calls for innovation in the legislative process beyond just a new speaker. Union ForwardRead More
In the wake of Representative Kevin McCarthy’s initial failure to win the unified support of his party’s razor-thin majority to become speaker of the House of Representatives, Americans have an opportunity to come to terms with the alarming extent to which partisanship has distorted the chamber.
As McCarthy labors to flip the votes of roughly 20 Republicans—14 of whom are members of the House Freedom Caucus—who oppose his leadership, a dark horse candidate for speaker sees a chance to reshape the House as we know it. Former Representative Justin Amash, a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus who left the Republican Party in 2019, is vying to win the support of House Democrats and Republicans to serve one term as a non-partisan speaker.
In 2020, Amash joined the Libertarian Party and became the party’s first member to serve in Congress. Since his departure from Washington, D.C. in 2021, Amash has decried a steady consolidation of House decision-making power into the hands of elite party leaders. The former Republican describes the modern speaker as an individual who wields “almost ultimate power” over the legislative body.
His pitch to representatives is not that he will pursue certain ideological goals, but that he will return powers to rank-and-file representatives which have been eroded under recent Republican and Democratic speakers alike.
When Justin Amash helped found the House Freedom Caucus in 2015, he sought to shape the caucus into a vehicle that could restore those powers to rank-and-file representatives.
Decentralization of the legislative process was his goal then, and remains his goal in his bid for speaker. Where many Americans see disarray in the Republicans’ disunity, Amash sees a vibrant legislative process. While the president was quick to call the process “embarrassing” for his political opponents, Amash saw virtue in a willingness to challenge poor leadership. He believes the Freedom Caucus is right to deny McCarthy the speaker’s gavel and has offered sharp criticism for the Republican leader.
Amash left the Freedom Caucus in 2019 after he felt it drifted too close to President Donald Trump’s orbit. He left the Republican Party soon after. In 2020, he joined the Libertarian Party and decided against running for re-election with odds stacked against him. Despite his break with the Freedom Caucus, he is publicly supportive of their refusal to vote for McCarthy without concessions regarding House rules. His fierce lack of faith in McCarthy, based on his ten years of experience in the House, fuels his own bid for speaker:
He views McCarthy less as a unique threat to democratic principles than as someone who would continue the same anti-democratic approach taken by previous speakers. Amash is especially concerned with the process of drafting, debating, and voting on legislation. He grew convinced during his time in Congress that this process is merely dictated by a small handful of elite individuals, namely congressional party leaders and the president.
Legislation is often passed via “omnibus” bills which combine many different priorities in a single piece of legislation. The representatives who decide its fate are given just hours or days to review finalized omnibus bills—bills that run thousands of pages—before they are asked to cast their votes. These omnibus bills include vital legislation such as funding for the government, thus forcing representatives to either support the bill—and everything in it—or risk causing a government shutdown. Input from rank-and-file members is not considered to be particularly relevant in modern House decision-making.
Instead of being asked to propose ideas and engage in animated debate, U.S. representatives in the 21st century are instructed by their party’s leaders on how they are expected to vote. If a member refuses, a challenger boasting of their loyalty to the party will await that member in their next primary election. Amash himself faced this scenario in 2020 after breaking with his party one too many times.
In a clear rejection of this model, Amash is proposing a revamp of the legislative process which he believes to be more closely aligned with the Founders’ original vision for the House:
In a recent interview, Amash highlighted that he wants rank-and-file representatives to have the power to shape legislation regardless of their party affiliation. He believes that leaders on both the left and the right are responsible for the erosion of the legislative process, thus it must be a coalition of representatives from both the left and the right who restore it.
The lack of a clear alternative to McCarthy makes Amash’s bid compelling. In his calls to focus on process and decentralize power in the House, Amash makes a case for himself that could resonate with a number of representatives from either party. His unique history as a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, a Republican who stood up to President Trump, and then the first Libertarian member of Congress has left him with an ideologically diverse group of supporters.
“I’m not beholden to either party, and my primary interest will be reinvigorating the institution to serve the people as a deliberative body.”
Joshua Reed Eakle, a board member of the Libertarian Party’s Classical Liberal Caucus, invited independents of all political stripes to join Libertarians in backing Amash’s bid. As a nonpartisan candidate for speaker, Amash has pledged to be a representative of America’s independent voters as much as he is a Libertarian.
In addition to the impact that his proposed reforms could have in restoring democratic principles to the House, Eakle highlighted the potential for a candidate outside the two-party system to serve as a healing force for the Union:
“His focus on fixing the mechanisms that make democracy function is what we need right now and his speakership could unite the nation.
Amash is currently working on the ground to gather support for his bid to become Speaker, and while the path to success may be challenging, there is a chance that he could unite the nation by convincing a majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans to vote for him.”
Members of the Libertarian Party are thoroughly familiar with the broad control that Democratic and Republican leaders have over elections and, in turn, legislation. Restrictive ballot access laws, a voting system that reduces third parties to electoral “spoilers,” and a media landscape that refuses to look beyond the “spoiler” argument perpetuate the two-party system and subvert third party success.
Amash’s bid for speaker emphasizes rampant consolidation of power within the House, which is reflective of the extent to which election and voting laws are geared to sustain the two major parties at the expense of outside challengers.
Eakle has pushed the Libertarian Party to embrace forming coalitions with fellow third parties in pursuit of several key election reforms. The founding of the Forward Party in 2021 has brought increased attention to the roadblocks encountered by third parties and momentum to voting reforms meant to counter these roadblocks, and Eakle hopes that Libertarians will view the new party as an ally in their shared goals:
Amash himself has expressed support for ranked-choice voting, an alternative voting method which aims to eliminate the third party “spoiler effect” and allow for more than two parties to win seats in Congress. Supporters of ranked-choice voting hail its potential to tamp down partisanship and allow candidates from more than two parties to win elections.
The Forward Party includes voting reform and nonpartisan primaries as two key pillars of its blueprint to mounting a challenge to the two-party system. Andrew Yang, founder and co-chair of the party, expressed his hope that voting reforms could lead to a political system with five or six national parties. America’s deep dissatisfaction with the two-party has opened the door of chance for a new coalition to transform the nation’s party system. Libertarians, Forwardists, and supporters of all third parties greatly expand their ability to seize that chance by uniting their members and resources behind election reforms.
Ranked-choice voting (RCV), in particular, is gaining momentum nationwide for its potential to discourage partisanship. Maine and Alaska led the Union in adopting RCV in recent years, and Nevada voters will decide whether to approve the alternative voting method in 2024. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont pledged in his 2022 re-election campaign to introduce RCV in the state legislature this year.
Supporters of voting reform also note that if three or more parties were enabled to hold seats in Congress, speakers would likely have no choice other than to win support from members of two or more parties.
Although Amash remains a long shot candidate for speaker, his bid reflects a broader trend in American politics of disaffiliation from the two-party system. The Democratic Party lost a sitting senator in late 2022.
Amash’s proposal to serve as a one-term, nonpartisan speaker can be an example for an electorate that is eager to send more parties to Washington, D.C. His pitch to representatives is not an ideological one. He speaks of restoring vibrancy to legislative deliberation, primarily by restoring members’ power to propose amendments to legislation and by supporting single-issue bills. Legislation would be favored that lawmakers have the ability to read in one sitting, a luxury that omnibus bills do not afford to anyone who votes on them.
A legitimate challenge to Kevin McCarthy may or may not come from Amash’s bid for speaker, though it exposes once again stubborn cracks in the two-party system. 20 representatives thwarted McCarthy’s ascent in Republican Party politics, a far greater number than was even necessary.
The Libertarian, Forward and other third parties have a rare opportunity in the coming years to seize on apparent weakness in the two-party system. A successful bid by Justin Amash for speaker of the House would go a long way in accelerating the transition to a multi-party system.
Regardless of his success, however, all third party supporters should seek to use his bid as a means of building the cross-party coalition that will be necessary to challenge the duopoly.
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