The Corner

Why Justin Amash Voted Present on the House’s Keystone Bill — And Was Right to Do It

I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time learning about the Keystone pipeline project, and I certainly haven’t read the bills that made their way through Congress on the issue in the last four years. From what I’ve heard, it seems like a worthy project and the administration’s political obstruction seems very much out of line.

It’s certainly driven an obvious divide between left and right, which is why I was interested to read an explanation from Republican representative Justin Amash, who voted ”present” on H.R. 3, a bill to push approval of the pipeline through. (Hat tip to Nick Gillespie.)

As he explains, the project is a private industry project that should be supported. But as written now, the bill is a handout to one private company, giving it exemptions from generally punishing regulations and requirements. That’s cronyism.

Representative Amash, who writes up an explanation of each vote he takes, explains:

I voted present on H R 3, Northern Route Approval Act. The Keystone XL pipeline is a private project owned by TransCanada Corporation. This bill improperly exempts TransCanada Corporation—and no other company—from laws that require pipeline owners and operators to obtain certain government permits and approvals.

I support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and holding it up for over four years (with no end in sight) for political reasons is wrong.  It’s improper, however, for Congress to write a bill that names and benefits one private project, while doing nothing to address the underlying problems that allowed such delays to occur. The Constitution gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations,” but the Rule of Law requires that legislation be of general, not specific, applicability. A proper bill would address the circumstances that allow *any* such project to be held up for political reasons, not just Keystone XL.

As F.A. Hayek explained in The Constitution of Liberty: “It is because the lawgiver does not know the particular cases to which his rules will apply, and it is because the judge who applies them has no choice in drawing the conclusions that follow from the existing body of rules and the particular facts of the case, that it can be said that laws and not men rule. Because the rule is laid down in ignorance of the particular case and no man’s will decides the coercion used to enforce it, the law is not arbitrary. This, however, is true only if by ‘law’ we mean the general rules that apply equally to everybody. This generality is probably the most important aspect of that attribute of law which we have called its ‘abstractness.’ As a true law should not name any particulars, so it should especially not single out any specific persons or group of persons.”

In other words, as written, the law uses improper means to achieve a desirable goal. That seems right to me. Economist James Buchanan wrote frequently about the importance of a generality principle in rule-making. (You can see some of his work on this, here, here and here, for instance.)

This is also why, as lawmakers go, Representative Amash consistently stands out from the pack. First, explaining all of his votes to his constituents, colleagues, and everyone who cares to read him easily makes him the most transparent and diligent member of Congress. Second, this is the guy you can count on to stand for free-market principles, even when very few people will stand along with him. 

I guess at this point I would like to join Nick Gillespie in lamenting our inability to clone Representative Amash and hoping that we could at least clone his commitment to principle.

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