As Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) explained it, his decision to try and force every last member of the House of Representatives back to Washington, D.C. in the middle of a pandemic to get their votes on a massive coronavirus relief bill was a matter of pure principle, the type of act that those truly wedded to the ideals of a constitutional republic would gladly perform.
“I thought I might be signing my political death sentence,” the Kentucky Republican would say later, reflecting on the procedural maneuver he pulled that angered nearly all of his colleagues and drew the rebuke of President Donald Trump as well. “But I did it for principled reasons.”
But two weeks earlier, when Congress voted on a $850 billion coronavirus response bill, Massie didn’t bother to go to Washington, D.C at all. In fact, he scoffed at the idea that he’d even show up to put himself on the record. While his colleagues filed into the House chamber around midnight on March 14 to vote on that legislation—known as Phase 2 of the coronavirus response—Massie was back home in Kentucky, having just headlined a fundraiser for his reelection campaign and gearing up to reorganize his home pantry.
“I would be a no on that bill anyway,” he told a local talk radio show, “and I’m not going to sit up there in D.C. to wait for four people in a back room to cook something up that I know I’m not going to vote for.”
Massie’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment as to why he missed the March 14 vote. A spokesperson for his congressional office did note that the vote was announced 15 minutes before it was held. However, lawmakers had been instructed all week to remain in D.C. for an expected vote on the $850 billion relief package, which focused on shoring up the U.S. public health system and expanding sick leave. That Massie skipped town anyway suggests that the principled approach he would demand from his colleagues a week later was as inherently political as his critics claimed it to be.
Massie wasn’t the only lawmaker to miss the March 14 vote. Some of his colleagues were absent as well because they were self-quarantining so as not to spread the virus. Those in confinement included attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference, where many Republican notables were exposed to the virus.
Massie himself had gone to CPAC. But he had refused to self-quarantine. Instead, he went back to Kentucky and hit up a fundraiser, never returning to Washington to vote. According to Facebook photos posted by the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, the congressman was at a fundraiser to benefit his re-election on March 12, addressing supporters and chatting with them over beers in a Holiday Inn ballroom outside Cincinnati.
The next day, Massie appeared on the The Tom Roten Morning Show, dismissing COVID-19 as the “kung flu” and joking that those who fell ill at CPAC may have had something else. “Half of my colleagues,” cracked Massie, “who knows what they have based on their lifestyles.”
In addition to downplaying the need for him to be in Washington to vote on the legislation, the congressman also criticized the Phase 2 bill itself. “What’s going to happen is the Democrats and Republicans unfortunately are going to try and outdo each and spend more money than the other one did on each of their projects,” he predicted.
Two weeks later, as congressional leaders struck a deal with the White House on the Phase 3, $2 trillion COVID-19 response package, the situation had grown far more dire. Some members of Congress were still quarantining, but public health experts were also warning the public not to travel and gather in places where they would be on top of each other—such as the halls of Congress.
Facing those challenges, House leadership in both parties pushed for the chamber to approve it by “unanimous consent”—a parliamentary maneuver that allows a very small group of lawmakers to pass a bill so long as no member is physically present to register their objection.
It was then that Massie decided not just to show up and vote against the measure but to demand that every member go on the record with their vote. He shot back to Washington, telling reporters he was prepared to scuttle the passage of the bill by unanimous consent. The staunch fiscal conservative, who votes no on basically all bills, framed it as an issue of existential importance to the republic for lawmakers’ positions on a historically massive bill to be on record.
The threat prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to scramble to ensure enough lawmakers would be in the chamber so as to hold what’s called a voice vote, which would require more lawmakers than just Massie to object as means of forcing a roll call vote.
On Mar. 26 and 27, weary members of Congress boarded empty planes to D.C. and drove from as far away as Wisconsin in order to be present for the vote. Massie later told Politico he was offered deals to get him to give up his stunt and that he was threatened, too. When nothing could stop Massie, Trump himself made good on that threat with a tweet the morning of the vote, calling him a “third-rate” grandstander.
When the time to vote came, Massie registered his disapproval at the unanimous consent request—“I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent and empty chamber,” he declared—but was quickly gaveled down. No roll call vote was forced, and his move amounted to little, save for compelling a number of lawmakers to travel to D.C. amid a pandemic. Democratic and Republican lawmakers openly commiserated with each other over the inconvenience. In a conversation with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) overheard by reporters, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) called Massie a “dumbass.”
Massie currently faces a primary challenge from Todd McMurtry, an attorney who represented students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School in defamation cases stemming from a 2018 confrontation with indigenous activists in Washington. McMurtry’s campaign told The Wall Street Journal he has raised $300,000 since Massie’s big stunt. Massie, meanwhile, said that he has broken fundraising records, netting at least $214,000 in the past week.