Rep. Thomas Massie: 'We don't really have 218 conservatives here [who] meant what they said when they said they wanted to repeal Obamacare'
Libertarian-leaning congressman unpacks the great Ryancare 'bluff,' explains how Paul Ryan is 'more Machiavellian than even John Boehner,' and why he's 'still hopeful' about Donald Trump despite a military budget proposal that's 'the dream of the neocons'
As referenced earlier today, last night The Fifth Column invited to its podcast-waves Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of the most libertarian members of Congress, and a man well-known to Reason readers (you can consume our previous interviews with congressman from June 2013, March 2016, and May 2016; watch him eat a hemp bar on The Independents, and read what he's written for us).
With the Ryancare debacle (in which Massie was a firm "Hell no") still fresh in the memory tubes, and with the Trump administration collaborating with the existing GOP establishment to marginalize the crazies in the Massie-friendly House Freedom Caucus, the triumvirate of Kmele Foster, Michael C. Moynihan, and myself wanted to know how the Obamcare-reboot failure looked like from the inside ("this was a big game of chicken"), where Congress goes from here on swamp-draining, and whether there's any meaningful overlap between Trump/Steve Bannon economic nationalism and Tea Party-flavored libertarianism (in mutual opposition to the World Trade Organization, he suggested). Along the way Massie spelled out the virtues (and limitations) of his bill to abolish the Department of Education, ruminated on whether the HFC's intransigence has allowed libertarian-leaners to retake the lunatic lead from Donald Trump, and busted Moynihan's chops for being a diva.
You can listen to the whole thing here; Massie in the first 37 minutes:
After the jump a quickie edited transcript, thanks to Lindsay Marchello:
Welch: Give us a bit of a snapshot of what it was like there in the final 24 hours in that push.
Massie: Oh my gosh, this thing was like a rocket whose fins had fallen off. It started off in the wrong trajectory 18 days before…and there in the last few days it was traveling erratically, and I said on Thursday—obviously they pulled the bill on Friday from consideration—but on Thursday I said "This rocket has gone crazy. The best we can hope for is it lands in the ocean and sinks."
Welch: Now I should just interject here that you are an MIT graduate, so you are only capable of speaking in rocket metaphors.
Massie: I'm an electric engineer, I'm not a rocket scientist, but I like to pretend I'm one when I'm in Congress.
You know, I did a lot of media last week; I probably went on TV more last week than I've been on TV in my life. And I was trying to get the message out there that this was a big game of chicken, and that reality…is going to come crashing down on Thursday. They were able to avoid reality for one day by postponing the vote, but then reality came crashing down. And I also predicted that they would claim they had the votes right up until they pulled the bill, which is also what happened.
The speaker did Congress a great disservice by going on TV for literally the entire week leading up to the debacle of the bill being pulled and saying that they had the votes, so I felt compelled to go on TV and say they don't have the votes. And then, on I believe it was Thursday or Wednesday, Mick Mulvaney came—he's a former Freedom Caucus member who is now the OMB director—he came to our Republican conference, and he was carrying a message from Trump. He said "I've got a message from my boss. He's rather remarkable; he's not like most of us politicians, and he wants you to know that number one, he's done negotiating. There will be no changes to this bill. And number two, the vote is going to happen tomorrow, and he doesn't care if it passes or fails. We are going to have a vote and he's going to find out who is on his side and who's not." And then the third thing he said is, "If this fails, we are done with health care. You're done with health care, we are moving on."
Massie: They asked me, "What do you make of all that?" And I said it's all a big bluff.
Foster: Did you say that before or after you pissed yourself?
Massie: Just shaking. I was terrified. In fact I sent out a tweet that said, if the executive branch tells the legislative branch what to vote on, when to vote, how they are going to vote, and what he's going to allow them to do if the vote fails, is that a republic? And that got a little coverage. […]
Moynihan: Congressman, this is Michael Moynihan, I'm the one who is fashionably late—I like to make a grand, rather dramatic entrance….When you are dealing on an issue like health care, and you are dealing with a president who is nominally—and I mean to underline that word a few times—of your party, I was trying to pull up the quote from a debate in which Donald Trump was asked, you know, "15 years ago you called yourself a liberal on healthcare and you praised the Canadian system." This is a point in which the soon-to-be president would maybe pivot and say "You know my ideas have evolved on the issue," but he responded that "As far as a single payer, it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland"…. I mean we have a president, don't we, who has been pretty clear about his ideas and visions about health care?
Massie: Let me be clear: I am still operating under the assumption that this president wants to accomplish those things he campaigned on. And I'm not saying that ironically or sarcastically. I think that he got bad advice from Paul Ryan; I am not laying the blame for this at Donald Trump's feet. He's a big-picture guy, and when he picks the right sub-contractor, good things happen. So he went to—here's an example—he went to Heritage and he went to the Federalist [Society] and he asked them for a list of Supreme Court nominees, and they gave him a lot of good candidates, and he picked one of those, and he's a hero for it right now; there are very few if any Republicans who are upset with that choice. Contrast that to the way he went shopping for a health care plan. He came to the swamp and asked the folks in the swamp to write him a health care plan, and then adopted this swamp creature, and I think that's where he went wrong, frankly.
I do think he wants—he's not concerned with the particulars of what repeal or replace means, he just wants a good repeal and a good replacement. And I think he just latched on to the first thing that came along, and it was the worst thing that came along.
Welch: You brought up Paul Ryan—you were part of the group that defenestrated his predecessor John Boehner…
Massie: I'm going to have to look that up. […]
Welch: You chucked him out of the window in 16th century Prague. I'm pretty sure I heard you say in close proximity to me at some point that "Ah well, you know what? We will give Paul Ryan a year. We'll see how he does, we'll see if he goes through the kind of procedural reforms of 'Hey, if you are going to pass a bill, do it this way.'" So can you talk about how you see his role in terms of fulfilling that little aspect that you were asking for—that he do things in a new and better way that's pleasing to you regardless of what the content of the bill was at the end?
Massie: You know, he has clamped down on the process more than John Boehner did…. Every year that I was here under John Boehner, he always allowed an open-amendment process on the appropriations bills, and I was able to offer some wonderful amendments on industrial hemp…rolling back firearm regulations in D.C., and they passed, and these were great things. But then when Paul Ryan came along he would not allow the very same gun amendment that John Boehner allowed me to get a vote on….So in that regard he's doing worse.
And something else that I want to talk about is that…Congress, I think, always worked this way: You basically got your committee assignments in December, you know November-December, so that when the Congress started in January you could hit the ground running. We didn't have committees established in January. We didn't even have committee chairman established in January after Trump was elected. One of the reasons we got off to such a slow start…was, we didn't have committees, because Paul Ryan wouldn't give anybody a committee assignment, much less a chairmanship, until he won the vote on the floor on January 3rd for speaker. So…that was a little more Machiavellian than even John Boehner.
Foster: You mentioned that phrase "repeal and replace," a phrase that has been with us since March of 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was actually passed….Why isn't there a Republican proposal? Like, a sound one?…It's been a really long time, and what I saw happen was just this dog's breakfast of bad ideas, and I don't know that this would have been much better if any other Republican had been elected president, because the president didn't have any ideas, but it didn't seem like there was a real, concrete idea among Republicans more broadly.
Massie: Well I can tell you what if we had elected Rand Paul we wouldn't be in this malaise right now with regards to health care. I mean, he's a doctor and he understands what's broken. […] And I co-sponsored his offer here in the House to reform health care, or health insurance.
But let me say there are a lot of members on the Hill here who are walking around as if somebody shot their dog. They look so depressed—and it's just a few of them, I'm not going to name their names—borderline in tears, because they have come to the realization that we don't really have 218 conservatives here in the House that meant what they said when they said they wanted to repeal Obamacare root and branch. That's sort of the terrifying thing here….There is this sense, this coming to grips with reality, that it's going to be hard to get anything done that resembles what we campaigned on, given the lack of a moral constitution among our colleagues here. And some of that is pressure from lobbyists, from the health insurance industry, some of that is just fear of not getting re-elected. But they really have sort of lost their constitution here.
Moynihan: […] You saw this tweet where [President Trump is] attacking the Freedom Caucus, attacking Heritage and Club for Growth, and the Freedom Caucus is something that was created with ideology in mind, with ideological principles. You have a president who seems to be rather shaky on what his own ideological principles are. Steve Bannon, obviously, as you well know, is a populist and somebody who hates trade….As a person like you, a congressman like you, when you are in the Freedom Caucus, when you're lined up ideologically, and you have a president that is like this, what is it like for governing, and what is your hope like for the future?
Massie: Well, I'm still hopeful, okay? There are moments when populism lines up with libertarianism. But let me tell you about a realization that I came to when I was in Iowa campaigning for Senator Rand Paul to be president.
You see in 2012, his dad did very well in Iowa, got like a quarter of the vote and a quarter of the vote in New Hampshire, and did very well in Nevada. I ran in 2012 on the same sort of libertarian ideas. Senator Rand Paul had blown a hole through the establishment Republican Party in Kentucky in 2010 on libertarian/republican ideas, and so I thought the libertarian ideology within the Republican party was really catching on, that it was popular. But then when I went to Iowa I saw that the same people that had voted for Ron Paul weren't voting for Rand Paul, they were voting for Donald Trump. And the same thing happened in Kentucky, the people who were my voters ended up voting for Donald Trump in the primary. And so I was in a funk because how could these people let us down? How could they go from being libertarian ideologues to voting for Donald Trump? And then I realized what it was: They weren't voting for the libertarian in the race, they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race when they voted for me and Rand and Ron earlier. So Trump just won, you know, that category, but dumped the ideological baggage. […]
Welch: That leads to a follow-up, which is that right now we are in this weird position where after the Friday vote, Trump's original comments were kind of magnanimous, he blamed Democrats halfheartedly, he said they are going to come and eventually realize that they need to help write the bill. But as the weekend progressed you saw a lot of Trumpworld going after the House Freedom Caucus pretty strenuously. And so isn't it so that perhaps in this moment, 30 of you people—and again, I realize you're not in the Freedom Caucus, but you are next to them—you guys are once again the craziest people in the room, you are crazier than Trump? Trump is now collaborating with Paul Ryan, he's getting like plaudits from the Marc Thiessens of the world, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, all of these kind of institutional sellouts are sitting there and saying "It's all you crazy people over there who are the problem." So maybe you guys can get some of your lunatic mojo back?
Massie: You know, Donald Trump campaigned on draining the swamp. If he gets up here and hops in and thinks it's a hot tub, like the rest of these guys, we're going to be in trouble. This was my great fear. You know, I joked about ideology and why Trump was elected, but I think when people looked at 16 candidates on the stage they said "That's the guy that doesn't owe anybody in Washington, D.C. anything, and that's the guy least likely to fall in league with the rest of them when he gets there, and the guy most likely to get us some change." And that's why they voted for him.
The biggest risk of this is going to be if he comes here and he doesn't do what he said, and if he becomes establishment, then the next revolution is not going to be at the ballot box. I mean they are literally going to be here with pitchforks and torches if electing Donald Trump didn't change anything. What the hell is going to change anything? That's what I think may be the next step.
But I'm still hopeful. I think he'll realize—hopefully, because he has lashed out at the Freedom Caucus, but I think he's lashed out at everybody over this—I'm hoping when it all settles that he'll see that we did him a favor, that conservatives in the House did him a favor by showing him that this next real estate purchase had a bad foundation.
Foster: Well the rumblings out of Washington now suggest that with the debacle of this health care reform effort in the rearview mirror that we are moving quickly toward potentially some sort of tax reform. You talked a moment ago, you suggested that there were some parallels, some similarities, some points of overlap between sort of economic nationalism, populism in other words, and libertarianism. Where are those points and how do they come into play here? I mean Paul Ryan is a guy who has traditionally been about balanced budgets and reducing taxes and all those traditional conservative things…but more recently he's talking about this border tax that's been floated around, and there's nothing particularly free market about that. That is populist as all hell…. [So] where are these points of agreement? How do you see things breaking down when it comes to the tax proposal that is yet to materialize, but seems to be developing? […]
Massie: Where I thought that populism and libertarianism might overlap is the fact that we are sick and tired of paying for the defense of other countries, and sick and tired of all these wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. That seems to be a populist thing, and I was hopeful that Trump would get here and follow through on that…
Welch: I appreciate the past tense there.
Foster: He seems to be disappointing on that score.
Massie: Yeah, well, I didn't say I'm no longer hopeful….
Also the concept that we are a sovereign country. Now…libertarians may disagree on this, maybe they like the World Trade Organization, but I can tell you Ron Paul was never a fan and I'm not a fan either for the same reason: that we are giving up sovereignty to them. And so that's sort of a populist notion that overlaps at least with my flavor of libertarianism.
Taxes are bad, okay? All taxes are bad. But the border adjustment tax is similar in effect, or at least economically, to the economic distribution of a Fair Tax, which is a very popular notion. The libertarian concept is that you have no tax, I guess, but you have to collect a tax somewhere, and the economic result of a Fair Tax is very similar to the border adjustment tax.
Moynihan: […] To the point you were saying about foreign policy: Lindsey Graham—and talk about people who have been denounced by Donald Trump, though I guess everybody has at this point—Lindsey Graham today was talking to Hugh Hewitt, and he said, "You know, I talked to Donald Trump on the phone today and it was a lovely conversation." Hugh Hewitt said "He's taking shots at you."
"He takes shots at everyone! Now we are pals, and here's why we're pals." And he said "Look, you know, Donald Trump said to me on the phone today"—and this was today on Hugh Hewitt's show—"the military that you want is the one that I'm going to build, don't you worry about it for one second." And of course we see this with this idea of, you know, a 300-ship Navy, and expanding military spending greatly, and of course what we've seen already is not only the failed raid in Yemen, a strike in Mosul that appears to have had the largest civilian casualty count since America pulled out of Iraq, apparently an attack in Aleppo that killed a lot of civilians too. And Lindsey Graham was saying that "I have nothing but the utmost faith in Donald Trump that his military so far and his military actions have made me happier than anything in the past eight years." I'm paraphrasing, but that's what he said….
You know, it strikes me that there is a lot that we can't really trust him on this. I know there was some excitement among anti-war libertarians, or sort of more inward looking—I don't want to say isolationist—libertarians. Does the feeling that you get is that Donald Trump is going to be swallowed by the machine or be stewing in—your words—in the hot tub swamp of Washington, D.C., and just become like Obama, like George W. Bush before him? Is that something that concerns you?
Massie: […] It's too early to tell. Really, it's too early to tell.
Moynihan: But trending in a bad direction?
Massie: Well, you know, I hate to keep saying "I was hopeful," but I was hopeful when he hired Mick Mulvaney to be the head of OMB, because Mulvaney was always the guy that would offer amendments on the DoD appropriations bills to cut money here or there, spending that the generals and admirals didn't want but the congressmen did. Like there's a law—there is literally a law—that says they have to, regardless of what the admirals want, the Navy has to keep I think it's 11 aircraft carriers, regardless of whether that's really what they believe is best. And this probably has to do with the people that supply parts to the aircraft carriers and put them in dry docks and whatnot. But Mulvaney offered the amendment every year to reduce the minimum requirement from 11 to 10, and it was one of those things the Heritage organization always scored against. And I like those guys at Heritage, but you know, they're definitely not against global involvement and a very large military. […]
In any case, what we've seen from the budget is actually probably the dream of the neocons for military spending. And it's spending-neutral, I guess: They cut as much as they add to the military, they cut elsewhere in domestic spending. But I would have loved to see them put that toward deficit reduction.
Welch: Quick question on the spending: They basically traded I think it's $60 billion dollars of money for military, Department of Homeland Security and Veteran's Affairs in return for $63 billion in cuts to agencies like the EPA and whatnot, 31 percent. I'm not going to accuse you of hanging out with Democrats all day long, however, what is your sense of the…realistic possibilities that any Congress that you are familiar with is going to cut 31 percent out of the Environmental Protection Agency this year?
Massie: You want me to give you odds?
Welch: Yeah I do, MIT.
Massie: I'm going with five percent odds.
Welch: So we are going to get those military boosts, because Paul Ryan and everybody else there not named you or Justin Amash has been bitching and moaning about the sequestration cuts forever, we've never seen a military so cut to the bone as what we have right now. So they are going to jump all over that, and then they are not going to make all these steep agency cuts that [are] the only way that the Trump budget is going to be maintain the same levels of spending as the Obama budget.
Massie: I didn't say they wouldn't, I said there was a five percent chance they would. I'm an optimist! […]
Here's the problem. I didn't realize this until I got to Congress, and I serve on three different committees. The EPA is in somebody's committee. There's a chairman of a committee that has jurisdiction over the EPA, and all the chairmen are Republican chairmen, and they have got, everybody's got a castle, and they are always trying to fortify it. Every chairman thinks it's his job to make sure all the money keeps flowing into his committee, and they really don't want to give up money. It's like we've spent $100 billion dollars in Afghanistan rebuilding their infrastructure and we are on the hook to spend another $10 billion. Now, 90 percent of America would like to take that $10 billion and put it down toward our own infrastructure, but there's a chairman of the committee somewhere that's saying "By God, you are not touching my money that I'm giving to Afghanistan!" And he's Republican, and that's the problem. […]
Welch: Let me throw one last question before we let you go here. You have authored a terrific one-sentence bill to get rid of the Department of Education by 2018, if I have it correctly. So I was just working on a feature for Reason about the possibilities for deregulation during the Trump presidency, which are actually pretty great; they are interesting to watch. And one skeptic about your bill said eliminating the Department of Education actually doesn't do very much because the underlying legislation dates from 1965 and it authorizes the federal government to throw a bunch of money into local education systems, school systems, and until you go after the underlying legislation, there's got to be some agency out there that's overseeing the program and spending the money. So what is your response to this critique, sir?
Massie: It's a fair charge. I had to decide whether to write a one-sentence bill that I could get a lot of people to agree with, or a very involved bill that talks about what happens to all that funding, and then people start disagreeing. But I thought, let's cut the head off the beast first and then we will figure out how to distribute its parts. […] My bill says "The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31st, 2018." Eight words and two numbers, that's it, that's the whole bill. And I thought if I keep it short I can get some of these guys to read the bill. And I still get people coming up to me asking me "What's your bill say? What's it do?" […]
So I've said there are three things you could do after you eliminate the Department of Education. By the way, what I'm eliminating is Betsy DeVos' job, which is what the liberals wanted me to do; I introduced the bill the day the Senate confirmed her, literally while they were voting on her. But it eliminates 4,500 other jobs in Washington, D.C., that are an average salary of a $105,000 dollars apiece, so you are talking about half a billion dollars in salaries that it would get rid of. Okay, that, unequivocally, the bill does, but what to do with the grants and whatnot?
You could either send things like Pell grants to the Treasury to administer for instance, and student loans to the Treasury. Head Start is already administered by Health and Human Services and the School Lunch Program is already administered by the USDA. You could either assign those programs to other departments and totally eliminate this department, which gets you back to about where you were before Jimmy Carter put the department in place, or you could block-grant this stuff back to the states. Every state has a Department of Education and they can do a better job administering these programs. Or third option, my favorite, is get rid of the funding for these programs and let the states fund the program so that the states collect the money and distribute the money within their states, because there's no magic about sending the money to Washington, D.C., and then begging to get it back, and then agreeing to jump through hoops in order to qualify for that money. Just let the states collect it and distribute it and that would be the constitutional thing.
Foster: Well Congressman Massie I appreciate you joining us, we will not hold you any longer sir. Thank you for playing ball and for chopping it up.
Massie: Thanks for having me here. Michael can you show up on time next time please?
Moynihan: No, I can't. I'm usually late for congressmen, just to show my contempt for the process in Washington, D.C. But you are one of the good ones so I admit to an error this time.
Massie: The contempt is warranted, trust me.