By PATRICK O’CONNOR
ASHLAND, Ky.—U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie lives off the electrical grid in a solar-powered home on a 1,200-acre farm in the Appalachian foothills. The first-year congressman and engineering graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built the house from lumber he logged and milled.
The Kentucky Republican also lives off the grid politically. Just a few weeks after his election, he helped spearhead an unsuccessful coup against House Speaker John Boehner and has since voted regularly against party priorities.
The defiant posture of Mr. Massie and a dozen or more like-minded conservatives has changed the agenda in Washington. In a capital where partisan power is nearly evenly balanced, he and a small but committed group of new House activists have discovered that they have the ability to block not just Democrats but their own party’s leaders—and they are willing to use it.
“I’m going to hang in here like a hair in a biscuit,” said Mr. Massie, who has twice appeared on the TV show “Junkyard Wars,” as one of the competitors who build machines from scrounged objects. “I’m digging in for the long haul. This place is worse than I thought.”
Republicans hold just a 17-vote majority in the House, which means such a relatively small but cohesive bloc can derail just about any measure that doesn’t draw Democratic support. That already happened when Mr. Boehner was unable to bring the conservatives into line on a big farm bill, compelling unhappy Republican leaders to make wholesale changes in the legislation. Trouble also lies ahead on a proposed immigration overhaul, as well as efforts to fund the government and extend the U.S. borrowing authority this fall.
Mr. Boehner has told audiences in New York and Washington not to expect much activity from the House for the rest of the year. The speaker was forced to rely on Democrats, for example, to help pass disaster relief for superstorm Sandy, the Violence Against Women Act and an extension of Bush-era tax rates for people who make less than $400,000.
Mr. Massie, 42 years old, represents a potent strain of small-government conservatism. He and his colleagues, unlike some of their predecessors, didn’t come to Washington content to trim government. Instead, they believe wide swaths of what government does need to be reconsidered from the ground up to deal with deficits and a potential explosion in entitlement spending.
These lawmakers, who now are the front line of the tea-party movement, are unwilling to fall in line with GOP colleagues. They are, however, willing to vote against what is perceived as their own political interests, as some did in opposing farm subsidies popular back home.
“There are a bunch of zombies here,” Mr. Massie said in an interview, referring to lawmakers in both parties. “Most of them come here with the purest of intentions, but they just get bitten…I don’t know whether to hug ’em or hit ’em with a baseball bat.”
The White House has concluded that this conservative bloc is so formidable that it now is, in effect, seeking to work its agenda through the Senate instead of the House.
Mr. Massie is hard to pigeonhole, though he leans to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He drives an $80,000 Tesla electric sedan with a license plate that says, “Friends of Kentucky Coal.” He wants lower taxes and less federal spending. He has sponsored or co-sponsored 61 bills, including ones to abolish the Federal Reserve and the new health-care law, as well as a measure to make legal possession of guns in a school zone.
He and his wife, Rhonda, grew up in Lewis County, Ky., population 13,870. They left after high school to attend MIT, where Mr. Massie, with the help of scholarships and financial aid, earned degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, known as the Oscar for inventors.
At MIT, the couple started a company in their apartment to sell a virtual-reality computer technology Mr. Massie created, using some of the 24 patents he developed.
In 2003, after building the company to a 60-person team that raised $30 million from investors, the Massies sold their stake and moved back to Kentucky to raise their four children on the farm where Rhonda Massie grew up. Mr. Massie’s father, a beer distributor, and his mother, a nurse, still live in Mr. Massie’s childhood home, about 15 miles away in Vanceburg, Ky.
Mr. Massie took a one-week course to learn how to build a timber-framed house on his farm, which he bought from his in-laws. He used a bulldozer to fell the 600 trees he used and assembled the solar electricity system himself. He later acquired 50 head of grass-fed cattle.
Mr. Massie said he began reading the Lewis County Leader, a local newspaper, where he learned county officials had proposed a levy to build a government office to lure a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Mr. Massie, who estimated the levy would have cost him $100, wrote letters to the newspaper and staged a protest that drew 150 opponents. Officials later dropped the idea, and Mr. Massie was soon drawn to politics by the small-government wave that washed across the U.S. in 2010. That year he ran his first political campaign and was voted the top elected official in Lewis County.
As the county’s judge-executive, Mr. Massie scoured financial records and halted services he thought the county didn’t need. To save money, he installed a new water tank at the county jail himself.
When Mr. Massie ran for Congress in 2012, his maverick reputation had already reached Washington. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and other House Republicans donated more than $50,000 to Mr. Massie’s top rival in the GOP primary, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Mr. Massie used the donations to reinforce his portrayal of his opponent as beholden to Washington. “Once she wore the establishment hat,” he said, “it was all over.”
He won over college student John Ramsey, who had given $3 million of his inheritance to build a group that backs free-market, small-government conservatives in the mold of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul. The group, Liberty for All PAC, spent more than $640,000 on Mr. Massie’s behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political donations.
Mr. Massie won the seven-candidate GOP primary with 45% of the vote, and then beat Democrat Bill Adkins by nearly 30 percentage points.
House freshmen used to be a quiet breed. But consecutive elections have swept away older lawmakers and replaced them with newer faces, instilling younger members with a measure of power over party elders.
In Washington, Mr. Massie joined a handful of freshmen who won seats despite opposition from congressional Republicans. First-year U.S. Reps. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma and Ted Yoho of Florida both beat incumbent Republicans.
It took Mr. Massie just a few weeks to run afoul of party leaders. In late December, Mr. Boehner was negotiating with President Barack Obama to avoid a combination of pending tax increases and spending cuts that was nicknamed the fiscal cliff. As talks fizzled, Mr. Boehner asked the House to approve extending tax rates for all but million-dollar earners.
Mr. Massie, who was sworn in early after his predecessor resigned, opposed raising tax rates and voted to block it.
Mr. McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House, bounded across the House floor to scold the newcomer, Mr. Massie recalled. Mr. McCarthy then turned to Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, ringleader of the revolt, and said: “Jim, he doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He doesn’t know what you’re getting him into.”
After Mr. McCarthy left, other Republicans congratulated the freshman for standing his ground, Mr. Massie said. Mr. Boehner pulled the bill.
Mr. Massie’s reputation was cemented weeks later when he tried to deny Mr. Boehner’s re-election as speaker. Although the plot fizzled, 12 Republicans voted for someone else or abstained, the most defections by fellow party members for a speaker since 1923.
Mr. Massie and his allies are supported by a network that raises money and builds support outside the party structure. Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Heritage Action for America use social media and direct outreach to congressional offices to fan discontent among conservative voters nationwide over legislation they oppose.
“The internal forces here in Washington, D.C., don’t produce the right answer,” Mr. Massie said. “We need to rally people on the outside.”
In March, Mr. Massie and 15 other Republicans nearly upended legislation to fund the government. Some opposed the bill because it failed to cut funds for the health-care law. Others were annoyed that party leaders denied an amendment to prevent Mr. Obama from spending taxpayer money to play golf.
Democrats say the infighting helps them paint the GOP as out of step with voters, while tamping enthusiasm among conservative activists.
“You’ve got the far right worrying about the far, far right and pulling the entire party out-of-step with independents,” said Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
GOP leaders tried to bring the agitators into the fold. They scored a victory in March by persuading Mr. Bridenstine to support a budget blueprint that Mr. Massie and nine other Republicans opposed.
To win his vote, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) spent more than an hour with the freshman, trying to quell Mr. Bridenstine’s concerns about increased spending. During voting, House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R., Calif.) sat next to Mr. Bridenstine to prevent others from lobbying him against the bill. Mr. Bridenstine said the Ryan plan “was the best we could do” to stabilize the debt.
Republican leaders aren’t likely to try a similar effort with Mr. Massie. He told his staff to give his cellphone number only to his most fiscally conservative colleagues. Of Mr. McCarthy, the GOP majority whip, Mr. Massie said, “I run around tying shoes and Kevin runs around untying them.”
The rhetoric by House Republicans has cooled since party leaders put off until fall a fight over extending the U.S. borrowing limit. The controversies buffeting Mr. Obama have also galvanized Republicans, including the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service.
“The energy has dissipated some,” Mr. Massie said. Party leaders “have succeeded in peeling off some members.” He recently attended a session with Mr. Boehner in the speaker’s Capitol office. Mr. Boehner told the group to be patient. Change, he said, takes time.
Mr. Massie used the meeting to lobby Mr. Boehner on one of his favorite causes, telling the speaker to oppose legislation that would give states the authority to collect sales tax on Internet transactions. Mr. Boehner told him the bill would never reach the floor, Mr. Massie said.
Representatives of retailers Best Buy, Home Depot, Target and others had piled into Mr. Massie’s office in June to give him an earful about how online retailers now have a pricing advantage, according to participants in the talks.
The speaker recently promised his rank-and-file he wouldn’t allow a vote on an immigration bill unless a majority of his caucus supported it—a nod to Mr. Massie and others.
Mr. Massie also made a concession to party leaders when he backed a revised farm bill after GOP brass, bowing to conservative pressure, stripped money for food stamps.
But the Kentucky Republican and his allies were back at it last week, nearly passing a measure to defund the National Security Agency’s data-collection program.
Back in his district, Mr. Massie revels in his outsider status. He returns to Kentucky on weekends and during the week he stays in the basement of his aunt’s house in Virginia.
At a town-hall meeting this spring, he told constituents about a recent flight home from Washington. His 4th congressional district, which is heavily Republican and 92% white, favored former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2012 election by 29%.
The congressman took his seat in the last row of the plane when a man next to him jabbed him in the ribs. “Do you realize who’s on this flight,” the man said, gesturing to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, all fellow Republicans.
“I was sitting there,” Mr. Massie said, “hoping he doesn’t ask me what I do for a living.”
The original front page WSJ article can be read here.