Thomas Massie, House’s ‘Mr. No,’ Tries to Force Vote on Coronavirus Aid Bill

The Kentucky libertarian's tactics failed, but not before forcing lawmakers back to the Capitol for passage of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, infuriating them and President Trump.

Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, has often been the only lawmaker to oppose otherwise broadly supported measures.
Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, has often been the only lawmaker to oppose otherwise broadly supported measures.Credit...Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
  • March 27, 2020

WASHINGTON — When Representative Thomas Massie heard that House leaders wanted to pass a $2 trillion stimulus measure to respond to the coronavirus without so much as a recorded vote, he swung into outraged action.

He got into his black Tesla on Wednesday and began the drive from his home in northeastern Kentucky to the Capitol, determined to object to its quick passage and insist that lawmakers show up in person — in defiance of public health advice — to register their support or opposition.

"I came here to make sure our republic doesn't die by unanimous consent and empty chamber," he said on the House floor on Friday.

Mr. Massie, the libertarian whose contrarian streak has earned him the moniker "Mr. No," ultimately failed when House leaders in both parties united to deflect his stunt, assembling enough lawmakers in the chamber for a quorum and allowing the bill to pass by voice vote after all. President Trump signed the bill later in the afternoon, sending direct payments and jobless aid to taxpayers, help to states and hospitals battling the disease, and government bailouts to businesses battered by the crisis.

But putting down his one-man revolt required scores of House members to scramble late Thursday to return to Washington from all corners of the country, infuriated and terrified as they put their health on the line amid a rapidly spreading pandemic to grudgingly board empty flights or drive back to the Capitol.

Mr. Massie has never been one of the more beloved members of the House, but on Friday, he became in short order its most reviled representative, bringing together Democrats and Republicans — who had spent days fighting bitterly over the economic aid bill — around shared contempt for one man.

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"Looks like a third rate Grandstander named @RepThomasMassie, a Congressman from, unfortunately, a truly GREAT state, Kentucky, wants to vote against the new Save Our Workers Bill in Congress," President Trump wrote in his first of two Twitter rebukes, in which he suggested that Mr. Massie should be expelled from the Republican Party. "He just wants the publicity."

Not long after, John Kerry, the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee, took to Twitter himself to declare that Mr. Massie "has tested positive for being an asshole," and should "be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity."

"Never knew John Kerry had such a good sense of humor!" Mr. Trump quipped in a rare showing of bipartisan camaraderie. "Very impressed!"

A reporter happened upon a bipartisan venting of spleen against Mr. Massie in the driveway outside the Capitol, in which Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, was overheard telling Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, of the Kentuckian: "What a dumbass."

"I can confirm that @RepThomasMassie is indeed a dumbass," Mr. Maloney tweeted, confirming the conversation.

House leaders had planned to pass the mammoth government aid package by voice vote in an effort to allow fewer representatives to return to Washington, reducing the health risk to lawmakers. But that method can be easily stymied by just one vocal objector, and despite behind-the-scenes pleas delivered to the Kentucky Republican from members of his own party, Mr. Massie refused to commit to allowing it.

That meant Democratic and Republican leaders, betting that Mr. Massie would carry through on his threats, had to urge their members to come back to the Capitol to form a quorum, even as public health officials around the country advised against travel and large gatherings as a way of slowing the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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They bet right.

"The Constitution requires that a quorum of members be present to conduct business in the House. Right now, millions of essential, working-class Americans are still required to go to work during this pandemic," Mr. Massie said in a lengthy statement on Friday morning announcing that he would force a vote. "Is it too much to ask that the House do its job, just like the Senate did?"

A self-described constitutional conservative who has been known to sport a tie bearing the Gadsden flag, Mr. Massie, 49, often takes lonely stands. He routinely tweets contrarian takes using the hashtag #SassyWithMassie. In 2014, Mr. Massie derailed a bill the House was about to pass by voice vote to award an honor to the golf legend Jack Nicklaus by demanding every lawmaker go on the record about whether they supported such a commendation.

Awarding a medal to Mr. Nicklaus, Mr. Massie argued, "is not a good use of our resources," adding that the golfer "didn't die on the golf course."

His unwillingness to bend on even the smallest issue has charmed a slew of powerful conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. His closest friends on Capitol Hill are Representative Justin Amash, the Republican turned independent from Michigan who is also a frequent invoker of constitutional principle, and Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.

Mr. Paul provoked the ire of his colleagues this week for continuing to work in the Capitol while awaiting coronavirus test results that came back as positive. (Mr. Massie, in a nod to his friendship with Mr. Paul, for years sported a "Stand With Rand" decal on his Tesla.)

But that approach found few admirers on Friday. His primary race challenger, Todd McMurtry, who has accused Mr. Massie of being insufficiently supportive of Mr. Trump, eagerly seized on the president's comments, saying he agreed with Mr. Trump's assessment that Mr. Massie was "a disaster for America."

Nor were Mr. Massie's colleagues — a majority of them older or with a pre-existing health condition — amused. Many were privately terrified of the health risks of traveling. Shingles and lice, one senior Democratic aide said, were more popular than Mr. Massie.

The normally affable Representative Dean Phillips, Democrat of Minnesota, used Twitter to confront him, tagging Mr. Massie in his broadside.

"If you intend to delay passage of the #coronavirus relief bill tomorrow morning, please advise your 428 colleagues RIGHT NOW," Mr. Phillips wrote, "so we can book flights and expend ~$200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt."

A handful of Mr. Massie's allies defended him on Friday and directly appealed to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Massie "is a good man and a solid conservative," Representative Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona, wrote on Twitter. "He believes in the Constitution strongly."

Mr. Gosar added: "We won't always agree on strategy or policy. But he doesn't warrant this dressing down. Thomas—Hang tough brother."

Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, told Mr. Trump on Twitter to "back off."

"He is defending the Constitution today by requiring a quorum," Mr. Roy wrote. "There's nothing 3rd rate about that, @realDonaldTrump. I may miss vote if he forces roll call (flights) but it will pass."

But the overriding sentiment among lawmakers on Friday may have been best put by Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, who also aired his grievances on Twitter, even as he called passage of the stimulus bill a "Victory for America."

"Large number of Congress Members had to be in House Chamber and risk infection to themselves & others because of 1 arrogant Member," Mr. King fumed. "If anyone gets infected, blood is on @RepThomasMassie's hands!"

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