When Meadows took office in January 2013 the Democrats still controlled the Senate and the presidency. In 2015, Republicans reclaimed the Senate for the first time since 2007, but still labored under a Democratic president.
Now, as Meadows begins his third term and has recently moved from Cashiers to Asheville, he’ll operate under a unified government in which Republicans control the House, the Senate and the presidency. Congressman Meadows took the time to interview with The Smoky Mountain News in his busy Longworth House Office Building digs the day before Donald Trump’s swearing-in to talk about what that all means for Western North Carolinians still beset by a host of economic, social and cultural issues.
Smoky Mountain News: Earlier this week, Bush White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter penned with Obama White House ethics lawyer Norman Eisen an opinion piece in The Washington Post bemoaning Republican efforts to hobble the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Mark Meadows: Yeah, I think that’s pretty much dead at this point. From what I understand, it’s dead. The timing of that — even if it was valid — was not good timing. But I think at this point, certainly my support is to really try to make sure that we go on the side of transparency and accountability. It’s something that is important to me.
SMN: They additionally talked about the rush to confirm cabinet picks before financial disclosures had been completed, and to minimize President Trump’s own perceived conflicts of interests. My question to you is: do we now live in a post-ethics society?
MM: I don’t think so. I mean, I can tell you in talking to President Trump personally, as well as talking to some of his close advisors, they’re committed not only to divesting but trying to make sure that it is ethical and transparent. So a lot of the headlines are perhaps newsworthy in that at least it gives some of the thought pattern that is there, but I can tell you, behind the scenes there’s no one more committed to really looking at a transparent and ethical administration than Donald Trump and his team.
And to that end, I serve on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, so we’re committed to making sure that we’re a voice of the people, and I’ve got a long track record of being willing to go against even those in my own party when I see that it’s not right.
But I don’t see that as something that is going to be a lingering issue. Between election time and the inauguration, you get all kinds of things with Senate confirmations, and it’s just — it can be a very difficult time. I can remember when president Obama was first sworn in — I went to his inauguration last time — and there’s always that little bit of, “Well, we lost, they won.”
SMN: You had said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on how you voted in that closed meeting because you’re under investigation by the OCE. If it’s inappropriate to comment because of the investigation, isn’t it inappropriate to vote?
MM: Honestly and in truth, the only vote that I took on that matter was a vote to not gut it, on the House floor. When we look at that, a whole lot gets said about the negotiations behind the scenes. I was actually working around the clock on trying to work on making sure that there was due process for any fines that got levied, working with Democrats. That particular issue was not even an issue that was on my radar, to be frank. But at the same time, commenting on any votes in a conference — I never do that. I never say how I vote, and so to break that especially in light of that, is just not appropriate.
SMN: Millions of North Carolinians and thousands of your constituents in the 11th Congressional District could lose their healthcare as a result of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. What can you say to them that will quell their fears?
MM: There’s 646,000 people that actually get a subsidy in North Carolina — probably more of a health care need than most of my other colleagues. I can tell you that we’ve been working around the clock on a replacement plan, so I believe in and will firmly fight for a replacement to come alongside a repeal. In fact, if you read some of the headlines that you’ve been reading, we’ve led that argument, really, among conservatives. It was not just about repeal, but it was about replace.
So for those that would have concern, not only do I — based on what I see — believe that we will have more people that are actually covered, but more people that will be able to afford that coverage.
And taking the rug out from underneath people who have coverage is certainly not the thing to do. It’s not the compassionate thing to do, and not something I would support. Even politically, it’s not the thing to do. So I don’t see that happening; in fact, I’m committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.
SMN: So you’ve been privy to some of the details of the replacement plans. Do you feel like they’re robust and something you’d be comfortable supporting?
MM: Well I’ve seen four different plans, so at this point, I’ve been pushing for one that actually makes sure that we do it quickly, but we do it more robustly for those that are most at risk from that standpoint — those who can’t afford health insurance. And it’s important that we point out that people even before the Affordable Care Act were getting health care. It’s health care coverage — sometimes we conflate the two, but indeed this is more about the coverage, and working with them. I’m optimistic that one of the two plans that seem to have the most support will not pull the rug out from under anyone who has subsidies and is getting care and can’t afford it.
SMN: Let’s talk about the House Freedom Caucus, of which you are chairman. What do you consider the lasting accomplishments of that group thus far?
MM: Probably holding the reins on fiscal responsibility, trying to make sure that we don’t just spend our children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance.
But I think the other part is restoring faith in their government, in that a lot of people believe that this is such a partisan town, and the members of the Freedom Caucus are willing to be a voice for millions of people who don’t feel like they have a voice. It’s people who have been coming in, all day, who perhaps for the first time ever feel like they’ve got a Member of Congress that’s willing to talk to them, willing to take their calls. And that’s in spite of the fact that they may have a difference of opinion.
When we do that, it is critically important for us to have that accountable government, but also one that’s responsive to the people back home. So I think it’s partly fiscal responsibility, partly having a voice for millions of Americans, and the last thing is taking priorities that are important to all of America, but certainly Western North Carolina, and highlighting them.
One of the issues we’ve been pushing is a pause for Syrian refugee resettlement, which is something that not only affects Western North Carolina but is really in the news there. So we have been pushing for a pause to that until we can get the vetting proper, coming from Syria and other hotspots. So it’s not to do away with the program all together, but it’s certainly to address it for national security concerns.
SMN: Moving forward, what specific policy goals will the caucus advocate under the new administration?
MM: Well we’ve put forth a long list of regulatory schemes that we believe need to be rolled back or repealed, so we’ve got a very robust — more than 250 rules and regulations — we’re supporting. We’re coming out for term limits …
SMN: For Congress?
MM: Yeah, for Senate and House, and I think that’s something that when people see we’re willing to support term-limiting ourselves, it’s not about the old “good ol’ boy” network. It’s about really keeping it accountable. [Florida Republican Congressman and fellow HFC member] Ron DeSantis — we debated a bill last week that limits a member of Congress to three terms and Senators to two. There’s another bill out there that limits congressmen to six terms and senators to two, which would be a 12 and 12 [years of service]. Whether it’s that one, or Ron’s — and I’m a co-sponsor of Ron’s — I’m for shorter terms and greater accountability, so I think you’ll see some of that.
And then certainly from there, working on a few other legislative issues, one being how to save Medicare, how to save Social Security while keeping the benefits to those who’ve retired or are about to retire, untouched. I agree with President Trump that those benefits are earned, but at the same time, we’ve got to find a way to do that. So I’m hopeful that we can come up with some ways to save Medicare and Social Security moving forward.
SMN: How receptive do you think President Trump will be to those goals?
MM: You know, probably on most of those things, if I can get it to his desk, he’ll sign it. I know that. On the Syrian refugees, if we can get it to his desk he’ll sign it.
On the Medicare and Social Security reform, to be frank, that’s a tougher sell in that you have to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t affect people back home. I know when I was in my 30s I didn’t expect Social Security to be there. Now that I’m 57, I hope it is. So it’s one thing to adjust it for those that have plenty of time to plan; it’s another for those that are getting ready to retire or are planning on those benefits. So that one’s a tougher sell, both politically and financially.
SMN: So in my observations, if I may be frank, Republicans tend to eat their young much more readily than Democrats. So if people like you who are elected to advance these very specific conservative principles can’t pull this stuff off, how long until they come for you? How long until someone back in the district says, “He’s not representing us.” And not you specifically, but across the nation — your team has the ball, and if you’re not scoring touchdowns for your constituents, when do they come with the pitchforks?
MM: In my opinion, I think we have two years.
SMN: This administration has two years?
MM: We’ve got the first 200 days to prove that we’re serious, and then we have the rest of that to hopefully accomplish a few other things. And even if we only fulfill half of the promises in the first two years, then that will be a down payment to give additional time. But yeah, I would agree with you — it’s important that we perform. For me, if you’re not making a difference, if you’re not getting the ball in the end zone, you need a new quarterback.
SMN: President Trump is obviously all over the headlines with people making assumptions about what kind of person he is. Tell me about your interactions with him — what kind of man is he, really?
MM: He’s a lot more interactive and humble and soft-spoken than you could ever imagine in person. And that’s something that many people don’t get to see. I was surprised and, in fact, would say shocked, originally, on just how down-to-earth he was when we were talking about things. And it wasn’t just me as a member of Congress; I watched him behind the scenes when there wasn’t any camera, weren’t any reporters there. He was going over talking to a janitor and engaging a janitor that a lot of people would just pass by. And he was doing that. He was talking to the law enforcement guys, and truly having real meaningful conversations with the law enforcement guys who were there to serve him. And I’ve seen a lot of members of Congress, a lot of governors, they blend in to the woodwork when they look at their protection detail. I’m with him. He was just engaging. I think if people could see more of that, they would probably have a greater appreciation for why he wants to make American great again. It really is who he is.
SMN: If there’s one area where you disagree with him or one thing that you’re nervous about with President Trump, what is it?
MM: I think it’s important — we talked about it a little bit — to look at saving Medicare and Social Security. We don’t have a lot of time to do that, and so I want to be able to persuade him that it’s an important enough topic to invest in politically, to save those programs but do it in the right way. So if there’s one concern, I see the potential liability out there as a big, big issue.
SMN: How do you think history will view the legacy of President Barack Obama?
MM: History has a way of being kinder to most presidents, and so I think if anything, it will highlight the things that he’s done, and diminish the things that perhaps I would not necessarily applaud him for. Certainly as a president, the 44th president of the United States — and a two-term president at that — he has reshaped a lot of the way that America thinks. He is certainly probably the best campaigner; he’s changed the way that campaigns are run. If anything, he will have a legacy beyond leaving office tomorrow at 11:59 because of all the judicial appointments that he’s made. For North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit [Court of Appeals] is a much more liberal circuit…
SMN: Seems like the Fourth Circuit has more say over what happens in North Carolina than the legislature sometimes.
MM: It shouldn’t be that way. You hit my philosophy there, but yes, you’re right. The Fourth Circuit has weighed in a number of times on a number of different issues.
SMN: Sometimes they’ve been right, but sometimes the Supreme Court has not agreed with them.
MM: You’ve covered this stuff for a long time, you’re a real pro at it and you get to see that ultimately it’s important for this peaceful transfer of power that we try to look at the best of what we’ve had, and hope for the best of what is to come, and if we can do that, we’ll be well served.