How the ‘Watergate Babies’ Broke American Politics

tags: politics, Watergate, Watergate Babies

John A. Lawrence is a visiting professor at the University of California's Washington Center and the author of The Class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship, from which this piece was adapted. He worked in the House of Representatives for 38 years, the last eight as chief of staff to Speaker and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

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. 

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.

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.” ...

Read entire article at Politico

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