“Why We Left Congress”: Excerpts of Our Conversation with Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA)

Congressman Charlie Dent (R-PA) represented Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District from January 2005 until he resigned in May 2018.  

During his tenure, Dent held a number of leadership positions. For two years, Dent was the chairman of the House Ethics Committee. He was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies for nearly four years. He also co-chaired the Tuesday Group, a caucus of moderate House Republicans.

Prior to being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Dent served in both the Pennsylvania state Senate and state House.

When he announced his resignation from Congress, Dent said he intended to “continue to aggressively advocate for responsible governance and pragmatic solutions in the coming years.” He is now a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus — the bipartisan coalition of more than 200 former members of Congress, governors, and Cabinet secretaries who are advocating for political reform.

The following are excerpts of an interview Issue One and the R Street Institute conducted with Dent for the “Why We Left Congress” project, a joint report about congressional dysfunction and what can be done to fix it, based on exit interviews with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who decided not to run for re-election in 2018.

On partisanship in Congress:

We have a number of members on both sides who get very dug in. Their political safety is tacking hard to their bases, and in many cases, the fringe elements of the bases … They don’t see a political reward in seeking consensus or compromise. In fact, quite the opposite. They believe there will be a penalty or a punishment for seeking cooperation or compromise.

On the responsibilities of Congress:

Especially if you’re in the majority party, you have an obligation to govern. It’s that simple. I mean, there are a lot of people in Washington who are very good at telling you all the things they can never do. But at some point, someone has to say yes. Yes, that we must keep the government funded. Yes, that we will not default on our obligations. Yes, that we will pass relief for hurricane victims … At some point, there needs to be a majority who can say yes.

On the importance of bipartisanship and how to best work across the aisle:

The temptation is always to try to muscle the other side until the vote. Try to resist that impulse. Let them know what you really need. Find out what is a need and see if you can accommodate them in any way. If you can, you’re more likely to get cooperation as opposed to just trying to buffalo them every time.

What serving on the House Ethics Committee taught him about bipartisanship:

My time on the Ethics Committee taught me some valuable lessons. It was the only committee in Congress that was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, five and five. And so we could never muscle the Democrats on that committee. So we always had to work very collaboratively with them … We really approached our work, not from a partisan perspective, but tried to look at the issues based on the facts and the merits, and then make a decision. And I was always proud of that. You could sit in that meeting on the Ethics Committee, and we would talk about the circumstances, and you really couldn’t tell who the Republicans were or [who] the Democrats [were] … Both sides had to agree on everything every step of the way. It might slow things down a bit, but we got to a better outcome.

On serving on the House Appropriations Committee:

I was always proud to serve on the Appropriations Committee. You know the old joke in Washington: There are Republicans, Democrats, and appropriators? That’s meant as a slight. It’s a critical statement. The idea being that these guys, they’ll work out their deals at the expense of everybody else, when the truth is the Appropriations Committee was the one committee each year that actually had to do something. It had to fund the government no matter who was sitting in the various chairs, no matter which party was in control of the House, Senate, or the White House … Every year we had to come up with an agreement, and for that we were often considered capitulators, surrenderers, and squishes.

On the fundraising pressures faced by members of Congress:

All members are under pressure to raise money.

On the fundraising expectations placed on members of Congress by the political parties:

Here’s the deal. When I went on the Appropriations Committee, and certainly when I became a subcommittee chairman, the expectation was to contribute more money to the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee].

On how he handled the fundraising pressure:

I just dealt with it. I raised the money. I didn’t fight it. I just dealt with it. Frankly, because my races were less competitive [over my career], I could spend more time raising money for the team, so to speak, than for myself. I never found it to be overly burdensome. But again, I was paying some people good money to help me do it, and they did a good job.

One change he thinks would make Congress function better:

No matter how one changes the system, or changes the rules, if people are coming in there dug in, not able to make the hard choices and make the compromises necessary to govern, then … it isn’t going to matter much. It comes back down to people who have a capacity for governance.

On the frustration that many Americans feel about politics today:

A lot of people who don’t embrace the tribal politics of … the hard right and the far left, they don’t embrace that politics and might be looking for something different.

On what he thinks most Americans expect from Congress:  

Most voters want their government to function better … People expect you to actually do your job. And most of them aren’t caught up in the weeds of whatever the ideological fight is of the moment.

His advice to incoming House members:

It’s okay to take some risks, take some chances, once in awhile. It may accrue to your political benefit … Come out of the foxholes once in a while. You’re going to be okay.

On the power of lawmakers to make change:

There will be issues where there can be a bipartisan coalition assembled to advance worthy policy … If there is a strong bipartisan coalition of people who are willing to do some things to push back against their leaderships when the leadership is moving in a bad direction, you’d be surprised. They could have a lot more influence and put together a bipartisan swing coalition on any number of issues.

On how politics became more ideological over his tenure as a legislator:

I was elected in 2004, and I came from a state legislature where I’d spent 14 years. Eight years in the state House. Six years in the state Senate. And my observation at the time was that Washington could be excruciatingly ideological and that Harrisburg could be painfully pragmatic — there was no deal that couldn’t be struck. And over time, what I noticed is that my state capital started looking a lot more like Washington, and Washington became a lot more ideological.

On dysfunction in Congress:

We would have these circular firing squads established all the time on issues like appropriations bills and debt ceilings. These are basic functions of government — not defaulting on one’s obligations or keeping the government funded. These types of issues have become enormously difficult challenges and heavy lifts preventing us from dealing with more substantive policy issues.

On his frustration with the dysfunction in Congress:

Some people seemed to think we were operating in a unicameral system, that this is a parliamentary system, you simply have to pass a bill out of … the House of Representatives and our job is done. Well, no. That’s not how it operates … This is one of the standard plays of some in the hard right in my conference. “Oh, I’m for things. I’ll pass a bill out of the House.” As if they’ve done their job … They’ll pass a bill out of the House knowing damn well it’ll never become law, and saying, “Well, I did vote yes.” And I’d have to go back and say, “No, you really didn’t. We have to work out an agreement with the Senate.”

How he thinks the legislative process should work:

The way it’s supposed to work around here is [that] those who are voting for the bills … [get] to determine what goes into them. And those who are voting against them really don’t get to determine the content of the bills … Too often House Republican leaders took a lot of advice and input from members who were voting against the bills.

Want to read more about this topic? Check out the full “Why We Left Congress” report, written by Marian Currinder of the R Street Institute and Michael Beckel and Amisa Ratliff of Issue One.