How the ‘Watergate Babies’ Broke American Politics

 In Politics

For millions of Americans, from political analysts to readers confronting their morning newspapers, the dysfunction of today’s Congress is a disturbing mystery. The majority, which controls the agenda and schedule of the House, seems riven with division; the leadership seems bereft of methods or muscle for enforcing discipline; distrust pervades relations with Senate colleagues, and the relationship with the White House, controlled by the majority’s own party, is unpredictable and volatile. With the Republicans locked in seemingly intractable conflict with a minority focused on regaining power, the Congress has rarely been less productive or less well-regarded in the public’s perception.

It wasn’t always like this; in some ways, it was worse. For generations, the House was a secretive, hierarchical, tradition-bound institution that gave little regard or influence to newcomers. Power was concentrated so assiduously in the handful of committee chairs that even the elected leadership hesitated to challenge the old men with the gavel. From the dour Woodrow Wilson through the thundering Lyndon Johnson, the House lumbered along in its top-heavy, anachronistic style, incapable of competing with an executive branch that was increasingly agile and expansive, well-suited to modern mass communications, and aggregating power by virtue of its ability to act decisively.

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That model changed in the 1970s, along with many core aspects of American society. Against the fallout of the Watergate scandal and the executive branch abuses of the Nixon administration, the November 1974 congressional election resulted in one of the largest infusions of new faces into the House of Representatives in political history. On January 3, 1975, 93 new men and women became members of the Congress, 76 of them Democrats (49 occupying seats previously held by Republicans).

This was not just another group of the post–World War II House liberal reformers who had struggled against a stultifying institutional structure. Members of the Class of ’74 believed that if they were able to make the institution and its procedures more transparent to the public, both the House and American politics overall would change forever.

With few exceptions, the Class of ’74 did not seek office to reform an outdated Congress, but upon their arrival, they quickly learned a key lesson: without changes to traditions like the seniority system that disproportionately rewarded conservatives in single-party districts, few of their policy objectives would be achievable. However, the reforms they helped implement not only ended the deference to seniority, but also redistributed power within the House, to the elected leadership and also to increasingly autonomous subcommittees on which more junior members would play an influential role. The meetings, deliberations and votes of those panels, and the House floor itself, were opened to increased public scrutiny and accountability thanks to greater press access and recorded voting.

We were a conquering army. We came here to take the Bastille. We destroyed the institution by turning the lights on.”

George Miller

When volatile political, religious and cultural issues combined with procedural reforms that the Class of ’74 pushed through in an attempt to open up Congress, the changes set in motion unanticipated transformations that endangered the longtime Democratic majority, promoted the realignment of the political parties along ideological lines, and helped to institutionalize a distinctly partisan and confrontational style that permeates contemporary American politics today.

“We were a conquering army,” recalls George Miller, the longtime California congressman and Class of ’74 member who took office at the age of 29. “We came here to take the Bastille. We destroyed the institution by turning the lights on.”

***

From the moment they arrived in Washington, they were labeled the “Watergate Babies,” a derisive sobriquet suggesting immaturity and self-centeredness. In truth, surprisingly few members of the Class of ’74 cited the modernizing of the Congress as a central motivation in their decision to run for Congress. In interviews with over 40 of the Class’ members, both Democrats and Republicans recalled that they aspired to change national policy: on energy, on the environment, on issues affecting women and minorities, and especially, on Vietnam.

After years of Watergate drama, voters in 1974 sent a message that they wanted to purge corrupt and unresponsive politicians—particularly those who’d aligned with the Nixon White House. In California’s conservative Orange County, “Watergate made it possible for me to win” with 56 percent of the vote, remembers Jerry Patterson, a Class member. Paul Tsongas in Massachusetts and Les AuCoin in Oregon became the first Democrats to win their seats in a century or more. The tidal pull of the election was so powerful that it swept along candidates with unusual backgrounds: Bob Krueger, a Duke professor and Shakespearean scholar with an Oxford Ph.D., won in Texas despite a decade’s absence from his district, while Eddie Beard was a Rhode Island house painter who had never left his hometown.

Especially significant were Democratic victories in the former Confederacy, a region where the number of Republican House members had quintupled from just seven in 1960 to 34 in 1972. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, Kevin Phillips had predicted in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) that these states would boost Republican fortunes in competing for House control; but in 1974, Democrats won back nine House seats in the region, swelling the number of Southerners in the caucus to 81. The wave was so formidable that in Georgia, the ultraconservative Democrat Larry McDonald, a newcomer who had been briefly jailed for failure to pay alimony just a few months before the election, narrowly defeated a former Vietnam prisoner of war.

The new freshmen Democrats were generally young, mostly male, and almost exclusively white. Overall, 87 members of the Class were under the age of 40, shaving two decades off the average age of House Democrats. Many newcomers were in their early 30s or even 20s and more closely resembled long-haired college students than national legislators. “We were young, we looked weird,” observed Connecticut’s Toby Moffett, a former “raider” for famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader. “I can’t even believe we got elected!”

Stylistically, the Class proved an exasperating mystery to some older legislators, even those sharing its policy objectives. Some were Vietnam-era veterans, others were teachers or entrepreneurs or state legislators; one a steelworker, another a gospel singer; one was a member of the John Birch Society, another openly sympathized with Students for a Democratic Society.

Their youth and impatience with the pace of the House made some Class members appear impetuous, which did little to endear the newcomers to their senior leaders. “Close to half had never campaigned for any office before running for Congress,” marveled Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill, the House majority leader. They “had never rung doorbells, or driven people to the polls, or stayed late stuffing envelopes at campaign headquarters,” all hallmarks of the sort of earn-your-stripes machine politics that O’Neill knew well from Boston.

But the absence of deference didn’t mean they were hostile to government itself. “The need is not bigger government, but better government,” explained Class member Phil Sharp. They were a “‘new breed’ of legislator,” one commentator wrote, “young, brash, independent of its elders and their system, rejecting cronyism and parochialism, [imposing] a new order of ethics and independence.” “We believed government could be a force for good,” says Jim Blanchard, a Class member from Michigan who later served two terms as governor. Ideologically, “we were the products of the inspiration of JFK more than the Vietnam War.” Their goal, a New York Times reporter summarized, was to open up the legislative process, to “restore Congress to its proper constitutional rank as a co-equal branch of government [and] to staunch the systemic corruption that seemed to be the price of a bloated presidency.”

To the leadership, it seemed that many in the Class arrived with “a million grievances,” as O’Neill recalled. Class members challenged the desultory pace and anemic legislative output allowed by the powerful committee chairmen and tolerated by the leaders. Equally important, the freshmen wanted to send a clear signal to voters back home that they had not simply become a part of the congressional muddle they had been elected to purify. One of their first decisions was to create an unprecedented New Members Caucus to assert their collective power. “Your people voted for you because they thought you wanted to change the system,” remembers Miller. “We were running against this system. Why join up with the established group?”

The freshmen rejected the notion of simply following the instructions of senior members and the leadership; if the leadership wanted something, they’d have to persuade. Often, a member of the Democratic whip organization “just stood at the [House] door with his thumbs up or down,” signaling how to vote and expecting acquiescence from members, Miller recalls. Nobody was going to tell them how to vote without providing information and answering questions. “You could say there are 20 of us: We demand a meeting!” says Miller. The freshmen’s “mutual deference, not party discipline,” the National Journal suggested, “would become the rule.”

***

When the Class members arrived in January 1975, they were greeted by a group of would-be reformers, some of whom had battled for reforms while many in the Class were still in college. Since the mid-1950s, dissident groups of Democrats—Jimmy Roosevelt’s Raiders, Gene McCarthy’s Marauders—had sought to reduce the influence of the House’s conservative governing elite. By 1959, they had coalesced into the Democratic Study Group, whose influential members would include future leaders like Tom Foley, Jim O’Hara, Don Fraser and Bob Kastenmeier. Bella Abzug, the New York dynamo, called the freshmen “the Reinforcements,” and they proved ready to serve as the “shock troops … all charged up for change,” says Tim Wirth, a class member from Colorado.

Under the tutelage of these veterans, the freshmen learned that achieving their policy goals was inextricably linked to removing obstructions that prevented the House from addressing policy areas like health care, energy, and the environment. The veteran reformers explained that the most urgent step was the removal of several problematic chairmen long protected by the nearly sacrosanct seniority system.

They were “shock troops … all charged up for change,” says Tim Wirth, a class of ’74 member from Colorado.

More than any other anachronism, the seniority system infuriated the reformers, whose priorities were obstructed, and whose level of participation in committee and floor activity was squelched, by unresponsive chairmen, many of whom voted far more often with the Republican minority than with their own caucus. “If you live longer and get elected oftener than anybody else on your committee, you, by God, will become chairman of it when your party is in the majority,” wrote Missouri Rep Richard olling, a longtime reformer by the time the Class of ’74 was sworn in.

Seniority had originated in 1910 as a reform to prevent a seaker from naming only his own friends and allies as chairs. Seniority, it was believed, based selection solely on one neutral factor: the amount of time served in the House. Neither friendships, alliances, nor ideology entered into the designation of chairmen. or as long as anyone could remember, junior members were expected to accede to the accumulated wisdom and experience of more senior members. “Don’t try to go too fast,” legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn famously counseled. “If you want to get along, go along.”

“Getting along” and “going along” meant rarely speaking in caucus or committee meetings or during debate on the House floor, and even less rarely offering amendments. It was the atypical newcomer who had the opportunity to see a bill he had authored taken up for consideration, and even more extraordinary for a novice to manage a bill on the House floor. Power was concentrated so assiduously in the handful of committee chairs that even the elected leadership hesitated to challenge one of the old men with a gavel in his hand. When Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia—who, as chairman of the Rules Committee, effectively determined what legislation flowed from committees to the floor—refused to consider civil rights legislation reported from the Judiciary Committee, neither the chairman nor the seaker could force their bill past the crusty old segregationist for years.

The absoluteness of the seniority system, Bolling wrote, gave a chairman “license to cavalierly defy the majority on his own committee, the Congress, the President, the courts, and most Americans except his ever-loving constituents.” Only on the rarest of occasions did defiance of the party provoke retribution. When Democrats John Bell Williams of Mississippi, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, and Albert Watson of South Carolina endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, the caucus had enough. “I don’t want to put up with these traitorous bastards anymore,” declared Hale Boggs of Louisiana, the Democratic whip. The leadership rescinded Williams’ seniority, which deprived him of his chairmanship. Watson, who declared he would “not sit around and be bullied by Northern liberals,” renounced his status as a Democrat, quit the House, and was promptly reelected as a Republican, the first in South Carolina in the 20th century.

Among Democrats, dissatisfaction with the seniority system came to a boil in the mid-1960s, as passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act led to frustration and anger among the old-guard of Southern white conservative Democrats who had long dominated the House’s committees. As millions of black voters registered for the first time, and white conservative Democrats began shifting to a reviving Republican Party, the security of many Democratic incumbents became less certain. Their losses were a harbinger of a trend in which southern seats shifted to Republicans following the departure of an entrenched Democrat. The old guard Southern Democrats, predicted Rep. Carl Albert, would soon be left to rot “in the graveyard of the white man’s democracy.”

Opposition to unconditional seniority was the reform that unified the freshmen. The evidence justifying major reform was contained in an exhaustive report by DSG and Common Cause enumerating the shortcomings of several of the chairs. Overall, 14 of 22 were faulted for being “disrespectful to the caucus,” echoing the prejudice of the former longtime Agriculture Chairman Harold Cooley. (“I hate and detest junior members interrupting a senior member asking a question,” Cooley once had declared. “Senior members will ask all the important questions and conduct all the committee work.”) The report targeted five chairs: W.R. Poage (Agriculture), Wright Patman (Banking), Wayne Hays (House Administration), George Mahon (Appropriations), and F. Edward Hébert (Armed Services).

Patman, Ray Madden, the 82-year-old Rules chairman, and Harley Staggers, 67, of the Commerce Committee, were accused of “significant shortcomings,” while Poage, Mahon and Hays “showed a pattern of more serious abuses.” The report was especially critical of Hébert for having “flagrantly violated standards of fairness and compliance with House and Caucus rules” by stacking subcommittees with pro-war members and “punishing” those with whom he disagreed. The freshmen were especially alarmed to learn that their efforts to end the war in Vietnam would face enormous roadblocks if Hébert maintained the Armed Services chair.

Determined to disseminate power more broadly, the caucus decided to limit members to one subcommittee chairmanship, ending the practice by which a small number of members exercised their seniority to claim the gavel on as many as four subcommittees. In a decision that had major implications for junior members, each committee member was allowed to select one subcommittee before anyone chose a second assignment. This change meant that freshmen were able to fill up the slots on powerful subcommittees as their top choices, freezing out more senior members. As a result, the membership of some subcommittees became distinctly more junior and more progressive than was the composition of the parent committee that had been fashioned by the leadership to reflect the diverse views within the caucus. Taken together, the impact of these changes was sweeping: even those chairmen who were not challenged found their power significantly circumscribed by the energized subcommittees.

For conservatives, the message was ominous. “Watch out,” Georgia veteran Phil Landrum cautioned his colleagues. “The revolution’s going to get you.”

***

The culture clash brought on by the Class’s reforms wasn’t all a game of inside baseball. It was about how the members of the Class spoke, and the relationship they had with mass media.

Veterans of the long struggles for civil rights, for women, for children, for the environment, for people with disabilities, these new legislators articulated their agenda not merely as policy objectives but as constitutional and ethical “rights” with a profoundly moral dimension: a right to an abortion, a right to clean water and air, a right to consumer safety. While the practice occurred among liberals in the class of 1974, it increasingly appeared among conservatives as well: a right to gun ownership, a right to life for unborn fetuses, a right to lower taxes, a right to less government, a right to freedom from government regulation.

Elevating policy goals to the status of rights would prove to be a crucial step in the evolution of ideological partisanship in the United States.

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