There's nothing unusual about voting "present" in the U.S. House of Representatives: It's an easy way for a congressman to record his attendance without taking a position on a politically risky bill. In the last three months, nearly 20 members have availed themselves of a "present" or two over the course of about 272 votes.
Then there's Justin Amash, the newly elected, 30-year-old west Michigan Republican fresh from one term in the state House.
He has had 17 "present" votes -- including two Thursday.
His reasoning has been as varied as the legislation itself. The "present" votes have come on the big issues like defunding Planned Parenthood and NPR, and they have come on bills that he deems may be unconstitutional - key word there is "may". He is making judgments based not on what his constituents may want or need, but on his own personal interpretation of how the law should work. Isn't that better left to the judicial branch?
And, while other members have learned to live with the fast pace of legislation, Amash uses the excuse that he hasn't had time to read bills - but he has plenty of time to run to Facebook and post his explanations for not taking a stand one way or another. The media thinks that's something to celebrate, but it's hard to see how communicating with constituents is something unusual. It should be expected of your representative. Just because he does it on "social media" doesn't make it any different than sending out a newsletter, or posting on the traditional congressional web site. Seriously folks, Facebook has been around for seven years now. Get over it.
His "independence" of party leadership is beside the issue as well.
Already, he has voted contrary to Republican leadership on several occasions. In some cases, he did so because he considered the measures -- as sympathetic as he might have been to their bottom lines -- unconstitutional. In others -- such as in the case of a bill this week to extend a commission created for the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth -- it's because he said he thinks Congress has enough to do without taking on jobs better left to private groups.
Amash also has staked out an impressive series of "present" votes -- 17 of them so far, many more than anyone else in the House.
Conservative-leaning Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren has called him a "coward," and others suggest he's not willing to make tough choices.
"It's unacceptable for Rep. Amash to vote 'present' when Michigan families depend on him for critical decisions," said Haley Morris, the Midwest press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
This is a man who is serving only himself. We aren't paying him to second-guess the system or play constitutional lawyer, we are paying him to represent the wishes of the district. And while he comes up with a bunch of clever excuses for his behavior and is doing this on bills big and small, he appears to be avoiding the tough votes so they can't be used against him in the next campaign. Other congress members can find a way to get the job done within the framework of the rules of the House, as imperfect as they may be. While Amash may be trying to pass himself off as eccentric or independent, you have to wonder if perhaps that's only a masquerade that belies his personal arrogance.
Time for the 3rd to get new representation. If Amash won't step up to the plate and make the tough calls for whatever reason, we need to find someone who will.