Brian Fitzpatrick heads into Washington with independent agenda
Freshman Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick's modest Washington, D.C., office is not nearly as roomy as the one formerly used by his brother, retired three-term Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick.
He managed, however, to hang on to at least one feature: a giant Ferris wheel built with K'NEX, the construction toys manufactured in Hatfield Township, a Montgomery County piece of Fitzpatrick's 8th Congressional District that also includes all of Bucks County.
Transporting the model to its new home fully intact was a tall order, with staffers worried they would not be able to piece it back together if the unthinkable happened. That was nothing compared to working through the paperwork, according to his chief of staff.
"Because of congressional gift-giving rules, the wheel is technically on loan from K'NEX," said Justin Rusk while talking in the office the morning of President Donald Trump's inauguration. "We had to get a bunch of signatures to have the loan properly transferred and keep in compliance with the rules."
Fitzpatrick has carefully navigated the red tape surrounding the office, but has, in his short time in Washington, tried to stick to a campaign pledge to vote his conscience.
Late Saturday night, he joined a handful of Republicans to criticize Trump's executive order severely restricting travel to the United States by immigrants from seven largely Muslim countries and suspending all refugees from entering the country.
"While we certainly need to enhance our current vetting process and significantly reform our immigration policies to make sure terrorists are not exploiting our nation’s proud tradition of freedom and acceptance, the President's policy entirely misses the mark," Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "The reality is, terrorism inspired by radicalism and hate is global in scope and, as such, requires a comprehensive response, not a purely regional focus."
The statement denouncing Trump's action is a strong sign that Fitzpatrick will remain an independent voice in Congress, said Bill Pezza, a history professor at Bucks County Community College.
"Normally, a new congressman will tread lightly at the start and slowly start to show their independence," said Pezza. "Fitzpatrick's doing it right out of the gate. He's off to a pretty good start."
One of Fitzpatrick's first acts as a congressman followed through on a promise made during the campaign, that he would go after the seeds of corruption in Washington.
Day one in the office, Fitzpatrick introduced a package of bills targeted at government reform. They included three constitutional amendments that would set 12-year term limits for House and Senate members, dock congressional pay until a budget is passed and require a balanced budget.
The package also contained a separate bill, the Citizen Legislature Anti-Corruption Reform Act, that would do the following:
- End congressional “pensions for life” and direct members toward standard 401(k) retirement savings accounts;
- Require Congress to act on single-issue legislation;
- Codify that all laws passed by Congress must apply to its members;
- Move all congressional redistricting to independent, nonpartisan commissions;
- Allow access to political party primaries for independents or nonaffiliated voters.
The bills have been relegated to various committees in the House, with drastic reforms facing a bumpy road to the full House floor for a vote, much less to the president's desk. The constitutional amendments also require adoption by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
Fitzpatrick says the ambitious legislation is not for show, however, and he is determined to apply pressure to his colleagues. He sent a letter to Trump on Inauguration Day and talked about the reforms during his first public remarks to the full House of Representatives.
"The greatest lesson I learned as an FBI agent was that, when making decisions, often times the right thing and the hard thing are the same thing," said Fitzpatrick, on the phone Monday afternoon from his office in Washington, D.C. "In order to be really good at your job, you have to be willing to lose it in the name of doing the right thing each and every time."
The changes Fitzpatrick wants to make don't reside exclusively in the jammed up gears of lawmaking. There's small, cosmetic problems that he says represent the wide chasm between Washington and the rest of the United States. Last week, he introduced a bill that would remove "Members Only" signs located next to stairwells and elevators at the U.S. Capitol complex.
"I was disgusted to find the ‘People’s House’ complex littered with signage with the sole purpose of separating members of Congress from the people they work for," said Fitzpatrick. "Even little things like this highlight why too many Americans feel left out. They see a system that does more to preserve the status quo than it does solving our most pressing challenges, and a class of career politicians and elite insiders who see themselves as a separate class than their constituents.”
Yet Fitzpatrick has not gone completely rogue from the Republican Party, either. His roll call votes have been in favor of a number of GOP-friendly issues he campaigned on last year, including regulatory reform and withholding federal funding for abortions or insurance plans that cover the procedure.
"My job is neither being a rubber stamp or a constant critic of any administration, regardless of which party is in the White House," said Fitzpatrick. "I represent all the people in the 8th District, not just the ones who voted for me."
Pezza says Fitzpatrick's independence will face a tough test when a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act is unveiled. Fitzpatrick was one of only nine Republicans to vote against a resolution that the House passed, which sets the budget framework for the repeal.
"We need a replacement plan in place," said Fitzpatrick. "We shouldn't take off on an airplane that we don't know how to land. Plus, the budget resolution did not balance, adding trillions of dollars to our debt over the next 10 years. There is a massive spending problem that we need to counteract."
He emphasized that legislation aside, the health care system remains completely broken with rising premiums and deductibles and people still without coverage.
"We will have to see how he deals with the ACA," said Pezza. "Fitzpatrick said in the campaign that he wanted to tweak it, not throw it all out. With what we have seen from this past weekend, it's clear we need to go cautiously and check with other agencies before taking action. Something reasonable has to prevail, because anything less could create chaos."