Very few individuals can say they’ve brought Democrats and Republicans together in recent years, but Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) can now claim this rare distinction. On Friday, March 27, after Congress and the White House reached a compromise on a $2 trillion economic relief package in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Massie angered leaders from both parties by calling for a recorded vote on the bill in the House of Representatives, rather than a voice vote. 

A recorded vote—or a rejection of its proposal—requires a quorum, meaning that a majority of House members need to be present to pass the bill, potentially endangering House members who would need to return to Washington, D.C. Eventually, a quorum was established after many congresspeople returned to the Capitol; at that point, with a quorum established, one-fifth of representatives present needed to second Massie’s request, which did not occur. The bill passed by voice vote anyway. 

While Massie did not succeed in his call for a recorded vote, he made his point clear and instigated a sharp response from many in the political world. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to Massie as a “dangerous nuisance” and former Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted Massie “must be quarantined to stop the spread of his massive stupidity.” More surprisingly, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders also chastised Massie, with Trump even calling for his removal from the party.

But Massie is used to being in the spotlight for expressing unpopular political positions. While some, including Trump, may argue that Massie was simply seeking attention, he believed that he was upholding his libertarian, constitutionalist values. In response to the public outrage, Massie tweeted, “If this bill is so great for America, why not allow a vote on it?  Why not have a real debate? #SWAMP.”  

Massie has held firmly to those values for much of his life. After growing up in northeastern Kentucky, Massie attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1993 and a master’s in 1996. While a student there, he participated in engineering competitions and even invented an early virtual reality technology that allowed users to “feel” the textures and weights of objects on a computer screen, for which he received several awards.

Massie’s political career began in 2010, when he was elected Judge Executive of Lewis County, Kentucky, having moved back there a few years prior. In 2012, Massie ran for Congress in a special election in Kentucky’s 4th district, which covers much of the state’s northern border. Massie won the election and has served the 4th district since. In his 2012 victory speech, Massie thanked his most ardent supporters, declaring, “This is a coalition of the Tea Party, the liberty movement, and grassroots Ronald Reagan Republicans. And we have one thing in common: We want less government, not more.”

This principle has been Massie’s creed during the seven and a half years he has served, persisting even when his ideas have clashed with the desires of Republican party leaders. While the controversy surrounding the coronavirus relief package may have been Massie’s most notable, he is no stranger to headlines that label him an obstructionist. 

Even by January 2013, media outlets and other lawmakers noted how prone Massie was to voting against major pieces of legislation, including bills many Republicans supported; this would soon earn him the nickname “Mr. No.” From Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in 2012 to the fiscal cliff deal passed on the first day of 2013, Massie consistently voted no, arguing that his vote represented the conservative, Tea Party spirit that brought him to power. Some even speculated that he might primary then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from the right in 2014, though he opted not to do so. 

While in office, Massie has not been such a pariah on a personal level. Representative John Yarmuth (D-KY) ‘69 has been Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman since 2013; while he believes many of Massie’s ideas are extreme and implausible, Yarmuth says that he and Massie get along well. Yarmuth even admires how Massie commonly eschews party orthodoxy and thinks through each issue himself.

However, in recent months, Massie’s boldness in voting against the (sometimes overwhelming) majority has become more prominent. Massie was the only dissenting vote against the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November and the Uighur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response (UIGHUR) Act in December. The bills were meant to curtail humans rights abuses by the Chinese government—the former, against protesters in Hong Kong, and the latter against Uighurs in the Xinjiang autonomous region. Massie believed that the United States should not be interfering at all in the affairs of other nations, arguing that it invited those nations to meddle in American domestic affairs. In the past, Massie has used similar rhetoric to defend foreign policy decisions—including when he voted against imposing sanctions on Turkey, Russia, and other countries—but this was the first of these situations in which he cast his dissenting vote alone.

Massie’s boldness has extended to domestic issues as well, even beyond the coronavirus relief package. In February, Massie was one of only four members of the House to vote against a bill that made lynching a federal hate crime. Massie voted against the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, named for a young African American man who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, contending that the Constitution leaves the prosecution of such crimes to the states. Massie also argued that classifying some crimes as “hate” crimes leads to a system of unequal justice for the same offense. 

While Massie’s votes in these scenarios have infuriated many, none of them had the tangible impact of his objection to the coronavirus relief package—both for public safety and for Massie’s own political future. Though the bill’s passage was not delayed as Massie intended, Representative Peter King (R-NY) shared the potential repercussions of Massie’s actions, tweeting, “Large number of Congress Members had to be in House Chamber and risk infection to themselves & others because of 1 arrogant Member. If anyone gets infected, blood is on @RepThomasMassie’s hands!”

The week after the vote, Reason, a libertarian political magazine, described Massie’s decision-making after an exclusive interview with the congressman. In the article, Nick Gillespie and John Osterhoudt outline how Massie thought that House members should have to declare their positions on the biggest spending bill in American history on the record. Regarding the potential health concerns, Massie said that congresspeople have good health care and a good salary, so they should be there for a vote if the Constitution requires it.  

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank wrote a column in response to the incident titled “Thomas Massie is a monster Republicans created.” Milbank condemned Massie and called out his belief in the “deep state” conspiracy theory—altogether questioning if his obstructionist actions and rejections of bipartisanship were designed to make government work less efficiently. 

Gillespie and Osterhoudt didn’t necessarily disagree in Reason—they just saw the efforts to scale back government as positive. They wrote, “Massie still believes that the anti-spending energy that propelled the Tea Party movement and helped bring him to Congress in the first place is still alive.”

Milbank also considered the impact of the Tea Party movement on Massie and the current Republican party. Looking specifically at the attempt to obstruct the coronavirus stimulus package, Milbank didn’t think Massie was solely to blame: “Massie is the epitome of the anti-government culture [Republicans] have nurtured and encouraged. He embodies the drain-the-swamp political philosophy they have embraced.”

It is hard to question Massie’s ardent belief in his small government politics, influenced greatly by the Republican platform of the last few decades. Now the question becomes if Massie’s Tea Party streak becomes more popular once again, or if he will remain an outsider even among Republicans. Though Trump wanted Massie kicked out of the party, he has not endorsed Massie’s primary challenger. And recent advertisements indicate Massie still hopes to have Trump on his side moving into the election as Massie seeks another term in Congress.

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