Ethics issues could put Republican House majority at risk

Pressure on Republicans is mounting as scrutiny over their records increases.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. left, follows Rep. Chris Collins R-N.Y., walk through the colonnade from the West Wing into the White House in Washington, Friday, July 28, 2017. (AP Andrew Harnik)
Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. left, follows Rep. Chris Collins R-N.Y., walk through the colonnade from the West Wing into the White House in Washington, Friday, July 28, 2017. (AP Andrew Harnik)

By now, President Donald Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest are well-known to most people. Concern over menial ethics codes that are usually swept under the rug has increased. As a result, GOP members of Congress are finding themselves marred by their party and at risk of losing power over their own ethics complaints.

“Ethics is the ultimate nonpartisan issue,” said Tyler Law, national press secretary for the DCCC. “It appeals to Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.” In short, while many of the GOP members with tainted records are in safely held Republican districts, Democrats hope that voters will see their violations as a direct referendum on their own ethics and vote accordingly.

With House Democrats needing to pick up 24 seats in 2018 to flip the chamber, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has seized on that opportunity, waging war in what would normally be considered long-shot districts and digging deep into Congress members’ records to unearth possible missteps.

In some cases, Democrats have simply been able to up existing pressure on their rivals.

Just this week, leaders of the House Ethics Committee extended the deadline on their investigation of Rep. Chris Collins’ (R-NY) personal investment practices. Collins made headlines four months ago when it was revealed that he had written legislation that would benefit an Australian pharmaceutical company called Innate Immunotherapeutics, in which he held interest. Other Republican members of Congress who bought into the company include Rep. Mike Conway (R-TX), Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), Rep. Billy Long (R-MO), and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK). Long and Mullin sit with Collins on the House Health Subcommittee, which oversees the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Turning over Collins’ district to a Democrat may prove difficult, as the 27th district voted for Trump by nearly 25 points. But with a looming ethics investigation staining Collins’ record, a Democratic win may still be possible.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) has also found himself in hot water ahead of an important election. Hunter is currently being investigated for misuse of campaign finance funds for personal use — including a $600 dollar expense on airfare for his pet rabbit and regular $3,000 payments to his wife.

Hunter’s Democratic opponent, former Navy SEAL Josh Butner, has already used the scandal as ammunition against him. Butner told Politico that “[Hunter is] focused now on looking out for himself and staying out of prison more than he is representing constituents of the district.”

A lot of these Republican members of Congress haven’t faced a serious opponent in years; ethics have become a thorn in their side as well as a talking point among Democrats that can be used as a weapon.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), for example, has held his seat for over 20 years, but an ethics complaint involving him calling out a board member of a bank as a liberal activist could potentially cost him his seat.

Mikie Sherrill, a Navy veteran and a former federal prosecutor, is running against Frelinghuysen and says that his tarnished record is already coming back to haunt him. Frelinghuysen’s ethics issues come up “in community meetings, at coffee meet-and-greets” and beyond, Sherill said, according to Politico. “[It’s] part of the larger conversation as to why we need to have change here and he’s not acting like a leader,” she added.

Since since the start of the 2017 session, House Republicans in particular have become noticeably concerned over their own ethics problems. In January, they voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics as one of their first actions. The vote, which took place in secret just hours before the House convened, removed the independence of a watchdog group that previously provided oversight and detailed reports of shady operations by members of Congress.