The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Massie, opponent of $2.2 trillion spending bill, forces House colleagues back to D.C. for vote

The House of Representatives passed a $2 trillion stimulus package on March 27 to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus. (Video: U.S. House of Representatives)
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The scores of lawmakers who rushed back to Washington on Friday to secure passage of a $2.2 trillion rescue bill expressed shock and dismay at having to defy the advice of experts and risk their health amid the global coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 1,300 Americans.

But many were not surprised at which of their colleagues forced them to do it.

During his seven years in Congress, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) has established a reputation as a uniquely irascible congressional gadfly — one who is frequently at odds with his own party’s leadership, rarely votes for major bills negotiated with Democrats and, to make an ideological point, is willing to use the House rule book to inconvenience his colleagues.

Now, with the novel coronavirus threatening the nation, many believe Massie went well beyond inconvenience into threatening the health — and potentially the lives — of lawmakers and staff. And while Massie’s GOP colleagues have long grumbled about his tactics, he has now attracted the scorn of the most powerful Republican: President Trump.

Massie opposed the rescue bill on fiscal and constitutional grounds and made demands Friday for a recorded vote, which ultimately required more than half the House to be present to prove a quorum.

“I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber,” he said, requesting the recorded vote. A quorum was present, and Republicans and Democrats rejected Massie’s request, passing the bill by voice vote.

Earlier in the day, Trump called Massie a “third-rate Grandstander” on Twitter. “He just wants the publicity,” he said, calling on voters to “throw Massie out of Republican Party!”

Massie’s colleagues were even more irate. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) blamed him in an early Friday morning tweet for risking members’ health: “Risk of infection and risk of legislation being delayed. Disgraceful. Irresponsible.”

King later added: “If anyone gets infected, blood is on [Massie’s] hands!”

Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) called Massie’s maneuver “an act of vanity and selfishness that goes beyond comprehension.”

“The fact that he would put people who are at risk, number one, and, secondly, require us to model behaviors that other people shouldn’t be doing in order to satisfy his vanity is a pretty pathetic reflection on his character,” he said. “He should be ashamed of himself, and the country should scorn him.”

In an interview Thursday, Massie disclaimed responsibility for forcing members back to Washington, arguing that House leaders should have adhered to the letter of the Constitution and chamber rules.

“I am wholly rejecting the notion that I am the culpable one because I am insisting on the rules,” he said, adding, in a reference to the top House Republican, “Why aren’t you indicting Kevin McCarthy for conspiracy to circumvent the Constitution?”

Under Article I of the Constitution, “a Majority of each [congressional chamber] shall constitute a Quorum to do Business.” But it is rare for a member to insist that a quorum be proved on the floor. Each week it is in session, the House routinely passes many noncontroversial bills by unanimous consent or voice votes with few members in the chamber.

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As debate over the massive relief bill proceeded Friday, Massie sat on the House floor, occasionally chatting with a few conservative allies but otherwise remaining by himself, looking at his phone. When Trump tweeted his attack, Massie briefly left the floor, then returned.

Shortly before noon, he tweeted his own statement: “I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and I take that oath seriously,” he said, adding: “Right now, millions of essential, working-class Americans are still required to go to work during this pandemic such as manufacturing line workers, healthcare professionals, pilots, grocery clerks, cooks/chefs, delivery drivers, auto mechanics, and janitors (to name just a few). Is it too much to ask that the House do its job, just like the Senate did?”

At one point House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader McCarthy (R-Calif.) jointly confronted Massie on the floor. Massie said in a text message that they tried to convince him to refrain from his protest, explaining that the alternative was bringing hundreds of members to the floor, risking their health.

Massie refused, and members were summoned to the floor to provide a quorum. “The measures are incredible that they are taking to avoid accountability in history,” he said.

Pelosi said after the vote that she explained to Massie that his protest would do nothing but delay passage of the bill.

“I respect his point of view that he wants a vote on it — it’s a big bill,” she said. “But it’s a big need, and we had to get it done right away.”

Only a few fellow lawmakers expressed support for Massie afterward. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) both backed the bill but said Massie was justified in calling for a recorded vote. “I don’t know a member of Congress more principled or dedicated to the Constitution,” Lee said.

Since he was first elected in 2012, Massie has shown little fealty to business as usual in the House.First elected to local office in rural Lewis County, Ky., in the 2010 tea party wave, he won a House special election less than two years later with the support of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and several influential conservative and libertarian groups.

In one recent example of how he has been willing to vex his colleagues to make a point, he forced dozens of roll-call votes just before the Christmas holidays in 2018 after GOP leaders used a procedural feint to prevent a separate House vote on ending U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military efforts in Yemen.

But his political views only begin to describe Massie’s unusual profile among a chamber full of more conventional politicians. An MIT-trained engineer, the 49-year-old father of four sold a robotics company he built with his wife in 2003 and returned to his Kentucky hometown. There, he built a solar-powered, off-the-grid home on an Appalachian mountainside, using stone and wood gathered from the surrounding property.

He often commutes to Washington and back in his electric-powered Tesla sedan — one with a “Friend of Coal” license plate — and maintains a passion for tinkering. In 2018, he chronicled on YouTube how he used batteries from another salvaged Tesla to upgrade the battery attached to his home solar array, writing custom software to manage the system.

To his colleagues, his political meddling has been less productive. Massie has operated on the sidelines of the House Republican Conference and has reveled in being a lone wolf, casting votes against scores of bills that he believes exceed the federal government’s constitutional mandates.

Massie has been too independent, in fact, for the House Freedom Caucus — a famously restless group of hard-right GOP mavericks. By Massie’s account, while he is sympathetic to the caucus’s goals, he was not interested in joining a group that, under its rules, could bind his vote. Freedom Caucus members say privately that Massie was simply too unpredictable to join their ranks.

Still, Massie has aligned himself squarely behind Trump, even as some ideological fellow-travelers and personal friends — such as Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) — have kept their distance. When Amash left the Republican Party last year, Massie made clear he remained steadfastly behind Trump — a political necessity in a district that favored Trump by 36 points in the 2016 election.

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Now, Trump’s call to kick Massie out of the party has suddenly put his political future in doubt. He is facing a primary challenge from attorney Todd McMurtry, who represented students from Covington Catholic High School in lawsuits against several media organizations that covered their 2019 encounter on the Mall with a Native American activist.

Ahead of the June 23 primary, McMurtry has sought to portray Massie as an unreliable Trump ally — someone who had voted to oppose bills backed by Trump and fellow House Republicans.

That criticism has escalated over the past two weeks as Massie has criticized some government actions to combat the spread of coronavirus, including the closing of businesses. Massie also skipped a vote this month on a major bill intended to combat the virus after voting the week prior in favor of an $8.8 billion emergency funding package — his first-ever vote for a bipartisan appropriations bill.

In a statement Friday, McMurtry accused Massie of “putting his own selfish agenda before the needs of our healthcare providers, small businesses, and hard working Americans” and called him “an embarrassment to Kentucky and the Republican Party.”

“I will be a reliable Republican Kentuckians can count on,” he said, adding that Massie’s maneuver “has lit a fire” under many in the GOP. One influential group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, announced Friday it would endorse McMurtry.

On Thursday morning, Massie said that he had yet to hear from top House Republicans asking about his intentions.

“You would think the one guy who has called for more roll-call votes than anybody else would get a call from the whip team or the leadership asking about this before they would advise everybody that they’re indifferent as to whether they come and vote or not,” he said.

That changed in the ensuing hours. Both McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) tried to personally convince Massie not to force members to travel to Washington. According to people familiar with those conversations but not authorized to discuss them publicly, Massie refused to give assurances.

By late Thursday, vote-counters of both parties were mobilizing members to travel quickly to Washington in hopes of clearing the House bill Friday. Some boarded overnight flights from the West Coast; others drove through the night to arrive in time for the vote.

Massie said in the interview Thursday that he did support discussions about providing for remote voting or proxy voting to allow members to cast votes from afar.

He put his views in context of his skepticism of the party leadership, which has thus far rejected remote voting as an option for the current crisis, and said that he feared leaders would negotiate more costly coronavirus-related legislation without input from rank-and-file members. Summoning members to Washington, he said, gave them “more control” over their votes.

Leaders were acting “for the convenience of Congress, not for the convenience of the people,” he added.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.