‘The Objective Here Is to Actually Govern’

Representative Charlie Dent and other moderate Republicans are frustrated and angry: Their party’s far-right fringe refuses to be pragmatic.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Poor Representative Charlie Dent. The Pennsylvania Republican tried to stop the appropriations process from devolving into a cage-match over LGBT rights versus religious liberty. He really did. But efforts to rally colleagues around the banner of pragmatism failed, and now just look at the mess in the House: Appropriations voting blew up in a humiliating, highly public fashion. Democrats gleefully tarred Republicans as a pack of rabid homophobes. Worse still, the anti-discrimination measure at the center of this storm is expected to resurface on upcoming spending bills unless leadership restricts the amendment process—which was, in fact, a hot topic at the GOP conference meeting this week.

Some lawmakers might take satisfaction in saying, “I told you so.” But that isn’t really doing it for Dent, a member of the appropriations committee who has spent the past few years lecturing fellow Republicans about the perils of ideological intransigence. “We have to engage these other parties from time to time just to complete our work,” he told me, stressing House Republicans’ need to negotiate with their Democratic counterparts, the Senate, and the president. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for some folks to understand.”

Co-chair of the GOP-moderates’ Tuesday Group caucus, Dent has become the chief critic of his party’s conservative bomb-throwers—or, as he has been known to call them, “the purity police.” Whenever Tea Party types threaten to shut down a program, a department, or the entire government, Dent is the guy rolling his eyes and reminding members, as he put it, “that the objective here is to actually govern.”

The role of perpetual scold is never all that much fun: It’s like being the vegan at an all-you-can-eat bacon bar. But now, with the House’s return to “regular order” under Speaker Paul Ryan, life has grown even more frustrating—and politically fraught—for middle-of-the-roaders like Dent.

Just look at the LGBT meltdown. It started in April, when Republican Steve Russell attached an amendment to the defense-funding bill that exempts religious groups from the nondiscrimination rules governing federal contractors. Dent smelled trouble brewing—“The provision is too broad,” he explained—and so launched a bipartisan push to strip the Russell Amendment from the bill. The effort went exactly nowhere. Then, in a surprise move, Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney offered an anti-LGBT-discrimination measure on the bill that funds veterans affairs and military construction, affectionately known as “milcon.” (Dent, as it happens, chairs the appropriations subcommittee in charge of milcon.)

Republicans panicked. At first the amendment looked as though it would pass. But leadership got nervous that, if it did, the underlying milcon bill would flop, so Ryan’s team scrambled to get members to switch their votes from yes to no. The amendment was defeated by one vote. Democrats raised a major stink. Six days later, Maloney reintroduced the measure as part of another appropriations bill, this one funding the Department of Energy. This time, the amendment passed but the larger bill failed, further embarrassing leadership. Republicans sniped that Democrats were playing politics. Democrats accused the Republicans of gross bigotry. And the American electorate became further convinced that Congress is a rolling clown car of irredeemable dysfunction.

Dent found the entire experience disheartening: “I expected a meltdown in the appropriations process sooner or later. I just didn’t expect it this soon!” Then again, this is pretty much what the conference asked for when it pressed Ryan to return to regular order, he observed. “Rank-and-file members insisted on an open process and unlimited amendments. That’s great!” he told me. “But with that opportunity comes a responsibility to actually pass the bills.” Even if you don’t like every provision in them, he stressed: “Amendments go into bills all the time that I’m not crazy about.”

The open-amendment process indeed allows for more and more measures to be introduced, including so-called poison pills specifically aimed at killing bills. This really chafes Dent’s backside, especially when it’s his own team playing politics. “A lot of the guys who insisted on regular order also insisted on a budget that they knew would blow up the appropriations process before it even began,” he fumed, taking a poke at House Freedom Caucus members who continue to demand that another $30 billion be whacked from the budget. They didn’t support the top-line spending levels hammered out late last year, and now they’re not supporting the appropriations bills marked to those levels, said Dent.

At the same time, he added, they keep introducing measures that they know cannot pass (such as cuts to popular programs) but that force the entire conference to take awkward, ultimately pointless votes. “A lot of our guys don’t want to go through that exercise for a bill that’s going nowhere,” said Dent. “They don’t want to put up all these votes for no reason.”

At the Republican conference meeting just before the Memorial Day recess, some of those members took the opportunity to voice their concerns. “A number of people got to the mic and expressed a desire to maybe go toward a less-open-amendment process,” said a source in the room (who did not wish to air the closed talks on the record). “People feel like they were put in a tough spot.” (And this was before the failed vote on the energy funding bill.) So while some die-hards want to stick with unlimited amendments, said the source, “it’s safe to assume that anyone in a swing district or facing a tough reelect this year” is unhappy with how the current approach is (not) working.

Certainly count Dent among them: “You shouldn’t make the process harder for those of us actually trying to pass bills into law,” he said—especially not “to accommodate those who have no intention of supporting the final product.” It’s time for leadership to have a heart-to-heart with the rank-and-file about how members really want the system to operate, he said. “I don’t believe this is a problem of leadership. It’s a problem of membership at this point.” Members asked for an open process, Ryan gave it to them, and now they’re using it to blow up important legislation, he noted. “You can’t have it both ways!”

Ryan’s team is, in fact, already at work on a course correction. “Obviously the conference will be having a family discussion about how to move forward,” I was assured by a leadership aide who requested anonymity to speak freely. At Wednesday’s conference meeting, Ryan reportedly floated a plan to ban poison-pill amendments. How exactly to determine which measures qualify—and whether this tweak will have any real impact on the deeply rooted chaos—remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Charlie Dent will have to keep on serving as resident scold, forever urging his more fractious colleagues to mellow out and stop turning every disagreement into a showdown. “I feel like at times we keep having to learn the same lessons over and over again,” sighed Dent. “There is no wisdom to be gained by the second—or third—kick of the mule.”