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.