The Post-Watergate 94th Congress with John Lawrence

With the announced retirement of Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, a milestone in congressional history will be reached next January. For the first time in 48 years, the House will contain no one elected to the historic post-Watergate 94th Congress, the Class of ’74.

          Inevitably, one must ask how different today’s Congress is from the one the Class of ’74 – 92 new members strong – that entered in 1975. In the two years leading up to the Democratic wave victory, the country had experienced unprecedented turmoil: the Watergate break-in and cover-up, Senate and House inquiries, Supreme Court rulings and impeachment resolutions -- culminating with the resignation of President Richard Nixon just four months before Election Day. A month later, the political world was rocked yet again when the new, unelected president, long-time minority House leader Gerald Ford, granted Nixon “a full, free, and absolute pardon.”

          The response of Democratic House hopefuls was giddy. Many had entered their campaigns with little expectation of actually winning the election. “We thought, ‘Whoa, better find a place to live,’ recalled George Miller, a 29 year old Californian, ‘because we’re coming to Washington!’” “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!,” exulted Jim Blanchard, 32, running in Michigan. “We’re going to win.”

          Yet for most of the 76 Democrats  – and some of the 17 Republicans – who comprised the historic Class of ’74, Nixon and Watergate were not the main motivations behind their candidacy.  Rather, they ran to end the long, costly and bitterly divisive war in Vietnam. Within only four months of their arrival, the freshmen helped push through a cut-off in funding for the war to the consternation of senior legislators whose committees were bypassed.

          Most accounts of the Class of ’74 focus on their early support for removing three senior chairmen, an historic break with the hallowed seniority system. Contrary to widespread belief, however, the effort to dethrone autocratic or incompetent chairmen did not originate with Class members. The “reinforcements” as New York’s Bella Abzug called Class members filing into a Caucus meeting, provided reformers had needed for years to effectuate the chairs’ defeat and further actions to make the House more transparent, democratic and attentive to voters’ concerns.

          Long dismissed as the “Watergate Babies,” the Class of ’74 was neither as inexperienced nor as unconventional as long portrayed. Majority Leader Tip O’Neill complained that many had never licked envelopes or walked precincts before winning their elections in 1974, and a senior Republicans described them as “wild, uninhibited … downright rude.” The freshmen did not deny their unconventionality. “We were young. We looked weird,” Toby Moffett recalled. “I can’t even believe we got elected!”

          Yet the Class of ’74 was not as atypical as most accounts of their election have portrayed. About the same proportion had held prior elective office as other House members, and many others had engaged in politics as part of student, anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements. Nor were they unwilling to follow their sometimes bewildered leaders; as a memo prepared for President Jimmy Carter documented, the Class of ’74 voted more loyally for the party positions than any other cohort n the House.

          True, they were impatient, less deferential and more insistent about the urgency to address issues, sentiments born of a combative political and social atmosphere, but “babies” they were not. Having won improbable victories in vulnerable districts, many were skeptical they would enjoy long careers in Congress, and were anxious to shake up politics before their opportunity evaporated. They also perfected innovative communication and constituent service strategies that resulted in only two out of 76 losing their seats in 1976.

          The reforms they helped achieve altered Congress, and generally for the better.  With power reallocated to dozens of subcommittees and new chairs, long-suppressed issues from alternative energy to special education to women’s rights landed on the congressional docket. Institutionalized oversight of the executive branch imposed a newfound accountability on long-ignored agencies of the federal government. And more junior members were empowered to offer amendments and manage legislation on the floor, which was soon opened to round-the-clock television coverage and public scrutiny. Ironically, however, some of these reforms also enabled a newly aggressive army of Republican conservatives to launch a counteroffensive that would, twenty years later, result in Democrats losing control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

          How, then, does the Class of ’74 compare to more recent classes elected in wave elections, generally composed of conservative Republicans?

A major difference concerns their view of government itself, and specifically, the House in which they serve. The Class of ’74 shared its generation’s skepticism of institutional power, but sought to modernize the House to enable it to play a leading role in issues from energy to the environment, education and civil liberties. The classes of 1994 and 2010, both of which resulted in switching control of the House to Republicans, have viewed Congress not as an institution to be reformed in pursuit of more effective governance, but to be diminished to reduce the role of Washington in national life.

          The distinctions between these waves of reformers track the rise in partisanship not only in the Congress but among the electorate as well.  Indeed, the origins of our contemporary combative atmosphere lies in the 1970s with the emergence of forces both inside and outside Congress that enabled and even encouraged far greater ideological confrontation to occur. “We went to Congress to shake things up,” Bob Carr recalled, “and we shook things up.” As Rick Nolan prepares to depart next January, most will agree that Congress has never been the same.

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