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The Class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship

An excerpt from John A. Lawrence’s latest book

“A Different Kind of Congress”

The Class [of ‘74] brought more than support for reform to archaic House [of Representatives] procedures: it brought generational change, a merging of the external activism of the streets — the campus, civil rights, and anti-war movements, the battles for women’s rights and consumer protection, the drive for energy innovation and transparent government. “They arrived feeling they would have to make an impact if they were going to keep these formerly Republican seats,” the Washington Post declared in 1976. Joe Crapa, who came to know the Class as staff to the New Members Caucus, viewed them as a unique collection of members. “They had a sense that the people had selected a different kind of Congress,” he recalled, and they set about to prove it. Their politics had not emerged from smoke-filled rooms or the ward heeler’s organization for the most part. “They were children of the ’60s, activists who came up in politics by working outside the system,” Crapa said. “For the most part, they were not party people, but outsiders, ministers or PhD’s and even one house painter. They were fairly sophisticated about using television. They were not out of the old labor background. They were suburban, well-educated in good schools . . . clannish and self supportive and not dependent on anyone.”

Many of them brought personal experiences that would fuel their passion for the issues they pursued; many even relished confronting powerful forces within their own constituencies. Liberals southerners like Elliott Levitas and Jenrette promoted civil and voting rights, Miller fought local asbestos and oil companies that compromised his constituents’ health, Waxman battled the air pollution that clogged Los Angeles, where he grew up. They “revel in taking on formidable opponents,” one account noted, “often in the name of protecting both country and consumer,” even if in doing so they came across to critics as “brash, abrasive and arrogant [utilizing] tactics [that] cause resentment.” “We were the first class that was like that,” declared Phil Sharp, “and now the whole place is.”

They may have been “the most rebellious freshmen class in memory,” criticized by veteran members as “hot shots . . . who feel they’ve got the world by the tail . . . quite arrogant with their colleagues,” but their intelligence and commitment won them “grudging respect from House colleagues.” In short order, by House standards, they were recognized as leaders by the press and citizen groups, and they wielded genuine power in their committees. By 1984, even the crusty Richard Bolling admitted many in the Class “have become effective legislators.”

Although they are remembered for having thrown out three aged committee chairmen, most came to Washington to work on policy issues, not to reform the institution of the House itself. The Class brought a “sense of mission [a] mandate . . . to have an impact on the legislative process,” as James Sundquist of Brookings concluded. While most credit the Class with the reforms that challenged the autocratic management of the Congress, most of its members were unaware of the struggles to pry open the closed committee system, empower subcommittees and more junior members, and energize the Caucus until they arrived, although they quickly became enthusiastic participants. “We didn’t create the agenda,” Dick Ottinger acknowledged, “but we were excited about making change.”

Their 49 additional votes did make the difference in the implementation of reforms that had been successfully resisted for more than a decade during which the bipartisan Conservative Coalition, with the support of the committee chairmen, dominated the House. After years of liberal ennui, the Class’s arrival produced an activist majority faction in the caucus “that suddenly had the votes to do what it wanted to do.” “It was a hinge point in history,” recalled Les AuCoin, “but we didn’t know it.” Tim Wirth called it “a glory time,” filled with “a tremendous sense of mutual mission. You really had a sense of why you were there and what you were doing.” They not only displaced chairmen but, in doing so, sent a powerful reminder to other senior leaders that the caucus majority was not to be ignored. By the end of their first Congress, not only had three chairmen been displaced, but also another half dozen, doubtless annoyed by their diminished hegemony, decided to depart the House, as did the oft-criticized Speaker, Carl Albert. As a result, well over half of the chairmen for the 95th Congress were in their first or second terms, and there was a new leadership team including Speaker Tip O’Neill and Majority Leader Jim Wright.

The members and the achievements of the Class are often characterized as a one-dimensional “noisy, faction-ridden collection of individuals,” as illustrated by the frequent widespread use of the moniker “Watergate Babies.” But their rambunctiousness was exaggerated. Even their most celebrated action — the removal of the three chairmen — was not a blind rebellion against all conservative or aging chairs but a surgical assault. “Our targets were the old bulls in the Democratic Caucus who were not open or accountable,” Matt McHugh recalled, the “old line Democrats who were secretive, who hoarded power, and didn’t want to share participation in the process.” The reformers did not, as some concluded, destroy the seniority system or significantly undermine the authority of the party’s leadership. “Anybody that thinks the seniority system is dead is wrong,” Ned Pattison had noted. “But you don’t make yourself slaves to it.” They did not weaken the power of responsible chairmen or disable the House from functioning. Overall, the centers of power survived, although they were compelled to acknowledge the views and welcome the participation of a wider range of the caucus membership. As William Greider and Barry Sussman summarized early in the 94th Congress, it was important to distinguish between the Class members’ unconventionalities and the substance of their ideas and legislative skill. The freshmen “might stand apart because of their style, but not their ideas,” they wrote. “They are not as original as they seemed.” Another writer in 1975 observed, “If you get beyond style and rhetoric, beyond the hurry-up activism, the freshmen are remarkably orthodox [and] do not stand out from their elders on most crucial issues.”

The reforms the Class helped implement, together with the forceful personalities who took advantage of the reforms, dramatically enhanced the ability of junior members to play constructive and even leadership roles in the promotion of policy matters and to empower them to raise significant and controversial issues that the old-line leadership had resisted. As this account makes clear, the targets of the reformers were not all of the conservative or southern members of the caucus but those who used the seniority system to run the House like a personal fiefdom, as well as those leaders who did not have the fortitude or determination to challenge the old order that had rendered the Congress little more than “the sapless branch” of the federal government. The objective was not simply to shift power from the conservatives to the liberals as much as to disseminate power more broadly to younger members who had waited for years to participate fully, to chair subcommittees, and to impact the legislative agenda of the House.

 […]

Did Reform Hurt the House?

The tendency to misrepresent the impact of the reforms of the 1970s continues into contemporary political studies. The post-Watergate 94th Congress foreshadowed the emergence of “the new polarized, winner-take-all Congresses featuring sharp partisanship and polarization in the new technology age,” wrote David C. W. Parker and Matthew Dull, replacing the more “bipartisan, accommodating, and ‘compromise’ Congress” of an earlier era. A recent analysis entitled “How American Politics Went Insane” concludes that the origins of the current gridlock can be traced to the reformers of the 1970s, when “seniority and committee systems came under attack and withered.” The failure, Jonathan Turley argued, lay with reformers like the Class of 1974, who bear responsibility for “favoring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organize the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics.” Similarly, Republican political aide and Gerald Ford biographer James Cannon asserted, “The election of 1974 swept aside the House and Senate traditions that respected experience and ensured accountability.” In its wake, Cannon argued, “Congress became a loose congregation of independent operators serving parochial interests, local constituencies, and the highest goal — the next election.” “Now, everybody’s a baron,” Norm Ornstein wrote, and President Ford remarked that Congress had devolved into “435 prima donnas . . . who have no allegiance to their party or their leaders.” Even the respected political scientist Barbara Sinclair described the post-reform House as “anarchies where members participated on their own terms and without restraint.”

While it is unquestionably true the post-1974 House was less easily controlled by a small coterie of aging leaders who routinely defied the caucus majority, any notion that the “Peoples’ House” had descended into anomic dysfunction or that substantial bipartisan collaboration ceased to occur distorts the subsequent history. In the post-reform era, there was no shortage of disciplined and forceful leaders including Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright and chairmen like John Dingell, Dan Rostenkowski, Jack Brooks, and Jaime Whitten. True, the House was more difficult to manipulate and a greater challenge to manage, but it was hardly a disorganized or chaotic body. Partisanship was certainly on the rise, but most major legislation continued to enjoy a significant measure of bipartisan support for decades. “The secret to crafting legislation,” wrote Class member Henry Waxman, a liberal, in summarizing his years of legislative achievement, “is not ramming through a partisan bill, but rather designing one that is acceptable to all parties.” Bill Hughes, a moderate, concurred with Waxman’s observation. “The bottom line is that the system works well when you listen to other points of view and reach across the aisle to accommodate and compromise,” he noted. “That is our legacy.”

While many Class members acknowledge that they (like many others) missed or misread underlying changes that were working their way through American society, they nevertheless retained a confidence that the significant role they played in the transformation of Congress was decidedly for the better. “We gave politics a better name,” recalled Mike Blouin, “which this country sorely needs.” Berkley Bedell agreed: “I believe we . . . shook things up a little.” But they also shared the disappointment that more was not achieved in the 94th Congress and in the years immediately following it, and that they were incapable of sustaining the optimistic fervor they brought to Washington.

By 1980, the national optimism that had marked the arrival of the Class had soured, and the reaction to cultural and political turmoil of the previous decade and a half had helped persuade nearly 40 percent of voters that “moral threats cut right through the social fabric.” Rather than the confident issues of equality, peace, and transparency that had fueled the early careers of the Class, voters highlighted ominous factors that represented a “serious threat to the American way of life” including the inefficient federal bureaucracy, high and unfair taxes, the demands of minorities and women for greater equity, and a “lack of unity and patriotism.” Intractable problems and crises fed the doubts about the capability of government to solve problems: the enduring energy crisis, the inability to free American hostages held in Iran, the persistence of corruption and scandals among politicians. A succession of crippling developments, both foreign and domestic, further sapped faith in government: renewed war in the Middle East, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown, and the catastrophic failure of the Teton Dam.

If Democrats and analysts missed the changing currents of American politics, so, too, did Republican moderates who winced at the rising contentiousness within their own party. Bill Gradison, a Republican Class member, termed Newt Gingrich’s use of bombast to challenge Democratic domination to be “mission impossible” and predicted the Georgian was “wasting his energy [because] nothing is going to come of this.” While the movement of moderate Republican reformers like Millicent Fenwick or Dave Emery to the Senate failed to materialize, a growing number of hard-liners — labeled “the battered children from the House” by Republican senator Alan Simpson — did achieve that transition, helping to significantly elevate the partisanship level in the upper chamber as well. One of them, Trent Lott of Mississippi, recalled seething under the “bullyboy tactics [which House Democrats had used] to enforce their power” and described his former conservative House colleagues who had moved across the Capitol to the Senate in words that could easily apply to the Democratic Class in 1974 or the GOP activists who followed them soon afterwards. “We were hungry,” Lott said. “We intended to make a difference and eventually capture the leadership.”

This excerpt is taken from The Class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship, by John A. Lawrence. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press © 2018. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California’s Washington Center, worked on Capitol Hill for 38 years, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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