North Carolina U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger – himself tied to an ongoing ethics-related federal investigation – urged fellow Republicans on Tuesday to abandon pushing through a partisan rule change and to include Democrats in any proposal to change powers given to the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Pittenger generally agrees with the proposal put forth Monday but wants to see bipartisan legislation come to a floor vote through regular order, said spokesman Jamie Bowers. Bowers said Monday night’s meeting of House Republicans included a secret ballot and he didn’t know how Pittenger voted.
Another member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation who is also on the House Ethics Committee’s radar – U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows – told McClatchy on Tuesday night he’s okay with the issue eventually being pulled from Republicans’ agenda but that he’s not going to reveal how he voted in Monday’s private meeting.
Overnight Monday, the Republican proposal became contentious and some members faced backlash for the closed-door and secret-ballot meeting where they voted to place the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics under the purview of the House Ethics Committee. The committee includes both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
The proposal – initially adopted after Republican members returned to Washington to start a new session of Congress – sought to limit the authority of the independent ethics office but ended up being a near-immediate clash between rank-and-file members and Republican Party leadership.
Proponents of the change say the ethics office shouldn’t be allowed to investigate anonymous complaints filed against members of Congress. Those opposed say the move would substantially weaken Congress’ only independent ethics watchdog.
The effort to change the ethics office was short-lived after President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to blast the idea and invoked his signature “Drain the Swamp” #DTS slogan.
“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance,” Trump said in a pair of tweets.
Later Tuesday, House Republicans held a hurried meeting to reverse course, with House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, filing a motion to keep ethics office operations and rules the same, for now.
For Pittenger’s part, he says the ethics office needs to be reformed but prefers a different method. He called for transparency and openness.
“Both Republicans and Democrats have called for changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics, and so it is my strong recommendation that we advance these reforms in bipartisan legislation, in lieu of a rule change,” Pittenger said in a statement Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, Republican from North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, issued a similar statement on social media Tuesday and urged a bipartisan approach. Foxx said she was one of the votes against the proposal on Monday night, put forth by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia. Still, she said, the ethics office is “in need of reform.”
Raleigh-area Republican U.S. Rep. George Holding also voted against the proposal, his office told McClatchy on Tuesday.
The vote tally among Republican members Monday in favor of the proposal was 119-74.
Meadows, Pittenger ethics reviews pending
Pittenger, who represents southeast Charlotte suburbs as well as other areas along U.S. 74 into Cumberland County, says changing the way the independent ethics investigation entity works is a “side issue” compared to other legislative priorities.
“My top priorities are health care reform, tax reform, and defeating radical Islamist terrorism,” he said.
Pittenger’s comments on the ethics office come as federal investigators continue to look into personal loans he made to his campaign in the 9th Congressional District in 2012. The FBI and IRS probe is centered on Pittenger Land Investments, a real estate company Pittenger once owned but later turned over to his wife.
On that matter, an official ethics committee investigation is pending until federal employees are finished with their review. After a management change last year, Pittenger and his wife no longer have ties to the company.
Pittenger’s congressional spokesman told McClatchy on Tuesday the comment on future reforms to the ethics office have no bearing on the pending federal investigation into his former business. Instead, that issue could come before the House Ethics Committee, given that Pittenger himself requested an ethics investigation to rule whether he’d violated any rules.
The ethics committee, according to Pittenger, has previously approved the sale of the business to his wife but he’s refused to publicly release a letter he says indicates the committee opinion.
Meadows also has been scrutinized. Last year, the ethics office referred an inquiry to the House Ethics Committee involving Meadows’ office.
That ethics complaint revolves around a severance package Meadows paid to an employee who resigned amid allegations of harassment from fellow office workers. Meadows’ office has said he’s cooperated with the House Ethics Committee and asked for an official review.
His attorneys told ethics office investigators in 2015 that severance pay is appropriate but their letter to the ethics office indicated some conflicting guidance from various congressional entities governing the issue.
When asked about how he viewed such a proposal to change the Office of Congressional Ethics, given that the entity recently investigated his office and interviewed former staff members, Meadows said, “I don’t know that it’d be appropriate for me to comment.”
“I don’t talk about how I vote in conference on any of the issues,” he said. “I can say this, I trust the ethics committee to hopefully come up with a plan to make sure that everything is transparent and accountable. I believe they will.”
Meadows added that he thinks conversations among members, including Democrats, will continue. Incoming ethics committee chairwoman Rep. Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, plans to work with Democrats on the panel, Meadows said.
“I think they’ll make some good, pragmatic recommendations.”