Thomas Massie will wear his ticking debt clock to the State of the Union

The goal is to ‘instill anxiety among my colleagues,’ Kentucky Republican says

“I might wear this forever,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., says of his home-built debt clock. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
“I might wear this forever,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., says of his home-built debt clock. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Posted February 3, 2023 at 12:11pm

It’s not a doomsday clock or a pedometer, though it’s been confused for both.

The copper-cased ticker affixed to Rep. Thomas Massie’s lapel is a debt clock, tracking the country’s debt in real time using a complicated algorithm of the Kentucky Republican’s design — and raising eyebrows in the process. 

Since Massie, who has voiced reservations about hiking the debt ceiling, debuted the device in late January, he’s worn it around the halls of Congress, to votes and at an event in his home district. It’s been the subject of dozens of tweets and a handful of news stories. On Tuesday, Massie will don the provocative accessory at the State of the Union address.

“Say what you will about him, but George Santos had a good idea,” Massie said of his embattled Republican colleague from New York. “He said we should all wear one to the State of Union.”

Despite Santos’ urging, it’s unlikely that other Republicans will start appearing in the halls of Congress with similar debt clocks. Production is simply too time consuming.

Massie, who studied electrical and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first got the idea around Christmas and decided to order the parts. They include an Arduino ESP32, an advanced microcontroller that he programmed to scrub current and historic debt totals posted on the U.S. Treasury’s website to approximate the real-time debt, which exceeds $31.5 trillion and has hit the country’s statutory borrowing cap.

[Treasury launches ‘extraordinary measures’ to delay debt limit]

The difficult part of the process, Massie said, was writing the roughly 500 lines of code that feed the ticker — including programming that gives the steadily growing number a blurred effect, to hammer home the growth of the country’s mounting debt.

“My design specification was to instill anxiety among my colleagues,” Massie said. “And it’s hit the mark.”

With or without his debt clock, there’s anxiety enough to go around the Capitol regarding the debt ceiling.

Republicans have largely vowed to reject any deal to raise the debt ceiling that doesn’t curb spending. Democrats, meanwhile, have asked for a clean increase to the country’s borrowing limit. Neither side has indicated much willingness to negotiate, raising concerns over a potential default on the country’s debt if a deal isn’t reached.

President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy had a preliminary meeting on Wednesday but made “no agreements, no promises” on the debt ceiling, McCarthy said.

Some Republicans have suggested cutting entitlements, like Medicare and Social Security, though McCarthy has since snuffed out the idea. Massie, like McCarthy, believes entitlements are a nonstarter.

Instead, Massie has floated the idea of a continuing resolution that would fund the federal government at 99 percent of its current level. 

“A 1 percent cut is an incentive for both Republicans and Democrats to come to the table,” Massie said. 

A ‘forever’ fashion statement

Massie is not the first lawmaker to make some sartorial choice — or alter his or her physical appearance — to make a political point.

In 2019, then-Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, pledged to wear a custom-made fireman’s jacket until the federal government fully funded an effort to aid 9/11 responders. Maloney wore the jacket to speeches, events and the Met Gala before Congress passed the legislation. The jacket was donated to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in October.

Another New Yorker and Met Gala attendee, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, attracted attention when she wore a white Brother Vellies ivory wool jacket dress with the phrase “Tax the Rich” emblazoned across the back to the 2021 ball. Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Ocasio-Cortez over the outfit. 

More recently, Republican Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia has been handing out assault rifle pins on the House floor. “I hear that this little pin … has been triggering some of my Democratic colleagues,” he said in a video posted to Twitter this month. He sees the gun-shaped pin as a way to remind people of the Second Amendment.  

And Republican Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana reportedly waited to shave a burly beard until McCarthy was elected speaker of the House in January, a process that took four days and 15 ballots.

But unlike Graves’ beard, Massie’s debt clock is neither cumbersome nor obtrusive — and it has no end date in sight.

The mechanism is about the size of a nine-volt battery and weighs little enough that he sometimes forgets he’s wearing it. He updates the device by connecting it via USB cable to his laptop, which also charges its lithium battery.

“I wanted it to be as thin as possible, but I also need it to run for 16 hours between charges, because that’s about how long my day is up here,” Massie said. “So I had to balance battery life with the size of this thing.”

He is eyeing potential improvements to his design. The case in which the ticker is housed is made of copper flashing he found in his basement, which he said he may upgrade. If he does, the debt clock could stay fastened to his suit jacket well past the current debate over the debt ceiling.

“I might wear this forever,” Massie said.