If you approach Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash with requests for favors for projects in Michigan’s Third Congressional District, he wants you to know that you’re likely wasting your time. As a staunch supporter of limited government and defender of civil liberties begins his fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Amash is more than happy with the economic growth happening in the district he represents. But that doesn’t mean he’s about to start earmarking federal dollars or doing one-off favors for the area’s business community. In an exclusive interview with MiBiz, Amash said his job is to defend the Constitution and fight for liberty for all citizens, a position he acknowledges could put him at odds with fellow Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump.
A criticism about you that we’ve heard from local executives is that they expect their Congressman to help with regulatory issues or in earmarking federal dollars for local projects, but given your positions, they’re better off going to neighboring districts for help. Do you think the business community here has misconceptions about you?
I’m sure some people misconstrue what I stand for. But the bottom line is I represent the entire district. I represent every person in the district. I represent Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents. Greens, too. My job is not to hand out favors to people who have lobbyists. My job is to represent everyone fairly, including businesses and business owners, but not to give any one person or group an advantage under the law.
How does that play out when people come to you looking for some sort of favor?
Businesses should like a system where everyone is treated equally and your success or failure doesn’t depend on who you know in government. … They may not like that I turn down specific requests for favors, but that’s not my job.
So what exactly are you trying to accomplish in D.C.?
I think it’s important to improve the economic environment for everyone. When you do these special deals, you get a case of that which is seen versus that which is unseen. What you don’t see is the competitor businesses that are harmed or the other businesses that didn’t get a tax break that are now paying relatively higher taxes.
In your role as Congressman, do you have the ability to create that better environment for your district and for the broader country?
There are people in both parties who prefer to make things difficult for everyone so that they can hand out these special deals later on. It’s not that appealing to a lot of people in Washington — or even in Lansing — to make the environment good for everyone and then have no one come beg for help. They like the ribbon cuttings.
A variety of projects in the Grand Rapids area such as the Grand River restoration or increased mass transit are seen as catalysts for economic development, but most people say they need federal assistance to get over the finish line.
I don’t know if they require federal funds. Federal tax dollars should be spent on things that are national in scope. That’s how the framers of the Constitution designed the system. They didn’t expect the federal government to be involved in local projects. That’s for locals to be involved in. It’s really for the private sector, but it definitely should be at the local or state level. …
If local officials are coming to your office looking for help on projects that benefit the district, what’s your message to them?
(Y)ou won’t see me pushing for earmarks for projects that are purely local. I don’t think that’s a good use of taxpayer dollars and I don’t think it’s fair to Americans across the country. I can guarantee you that with every Congressman pushing projects like this, it’s not going to benefit my district to have that sort of system. We may get one project, and we wind up paying for hundreds of other projects. At the end of the day, my constituents actually lose in that system. A better system is if we want something here locally, we pay for it locally.
So is that where philanthropy and local taxes come into play?
Sure, and we have an advantage here because we have a lot of very giving families and we’ve got a lot of charity in this community. And we have a fairly strong economy compared to a lot of places. So we have advantages that we should leverage to our own community, rather than getting the federal government involved in everything. As I said, if we get federal tax dollars, you can rest assured that other people are taking our federal tax dollars to pay for their projects.
What’s your general outlook for 2017 on the legislative policy side?
I do think that with Republican control of the federal government, we’re likely to see some tax and regulatory reform that hopefully will bring some positive changes. In many ways, things are going pretty well right now economically. But I think we can do better.
The sentiment for a lot of West Michigan executives seems to be that there’s some pro-business policies on the way with the Trump administration. However, there’s lots of questions around their level of certainty. What would be your message to them given what you’ve seen?
(Laughs.) With this incoming administration, I’m not sure what to expect. I’m hopeful we can see some positive reforms. But President-elect Trump is not predictable and that probably gives pause to some of the businesses out there. What I’d like to avoid under President-elect Trump is the sort of case-by-case approach where they just do deals with businesses. We have to improve the environment for everyone, not just for a few.
Do you see yourself being somewhat of a lone wolf in the GOP when it comes to criticizing Trump?
I hope I’m not a lone wolf in the sense of criticizing him when he fails to live up to the principles that I think Republicans overwhelmingly believe in. I hope other Republicans will join me. But I’ll also praise him when he does the right thing. I’m not here just to criticize. I’m here to reinforce when I think he’s making the right judgment. But at the end of the day, Congress is an equal part of the government and we have a responsibility to do the right thing. President Trump either signs what we send him or he doesn’t.
Do you think Trump has the right judgment?
Not always. (Laughs). He’s like any other person. He’s unusual for an incoming president in that he’s perhaps less cautious than most people when it comes to the kind of statements they make.
As you noted, President-elect Trump is fairly unpredictable. However, the cabinet is starting to take shape and other details have emerged. Looking in your crystal ball, what do you see happening in the first 100 days?
I think there’s a good chance we move on tax reform and some regulatory reform. Those seem like the most likely areas because he won’t get much pushback from Congress, at least on the Republican side. Some of his other proposals, like his trillion dollar infrastructure proposal or even some of the outstanding health care proposals, they might have trouble because you’ll see more differences.
What worries you about the next year?
The uncertainty. We don’t know what kind of president Trump will be. It’s one thing to run a campaign in the style he did. It’s another thing to be president. I’m hopeful that we can find some stability and bring people together. But I’m not totally confident.
Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes with MiBiz Editor Joe Boomgaard.