It was quite a year, 1974. President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, and his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him two months before the midterm elections. The Vietnam War, which Nixon professed in 1968 to have a “secret plan” to end, had not ended.
On the economic front, the price of gasoline had jumped 50 percent due to the OPEC oil embargo that ended in March; the economy was in recession; inflation was close to 10 percent; and a relentless bear market had caused the DJIA to lose more than 45 percent of its value between January 1973 and December 1974.
Small wonder that the American people were restless. Their good opinion of the US Congress, which, unlike the executive branch was controlled by Democrats, had dropped from 64 percent in 1964 to just 15 percent by 1974 (where it has hovered ever since). If ever there was a time for change, the election of 1974 was the time.
John A. Lawrence chronicles that change in The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship. It is the author’s first book, but his credentials are impeccable: He had a front row seat to observe the times as they were a-changing. He came in with the class of 1974, serving as chief of staff for freshman Democratic Rep. George Miller and later for Nancy Pelosi right up until 2013.
Lawrence’s account of this largely young, liberal, and impatient cohort in the House of Representatives and what they wrought is detailed and thoroughly researched. He resurrects a time that seems like ancient history in many ways, but he manages to connect it to today’s partisan hijinks inside the Capitol Building. That said, the author sometimes gets lost in the weeds and, in spots, the level of inside-the-Beltway minutia is likely to be off-putting for the general reader.
It is easy to forget how the Democratic Party, which has struggled of late, dominated the legislative branch during much of the last century. For more than six decades, from 1933 until 1994, it ruled the House of Representatives for all but four years. Prior to 1981, the Republicans had not controlled the US Senate since 1955.
The election of 1974 would increase that supremacy. There were 91 new House members, 76 of them Democrats – incoming novices dubbed the “Watergate babies.” Rather than battling with the outgunned Republicans, the Democrats fought among themselves: freshmen against their elders, liberals against more conservative party members, and northerners versus southerners.
The early fights were not about passing legislation but rather over how to get bills out of the clutches of senior committee chairmen, who were fellow Democrats, and onto the House floor for a vote. Perhaps the most egregious of the crusty committee czars who reigned based on seniority was Louisiana’s F. Edward Hébert, 73. The chair of Armed Services Committee was an avowed segregationist and made the mistake of addressing a gathering of the Class of ’74 as “girls and boys.” He lost his chairmanship soon thereafter, as did two other bureaucratic dinosaurs.
Once the freshmen Democrats liberalized the House rules to give newcomers like themselves more power, they tackled the issues that had inspired them to run. First and foremost, they wanted to end the Vietnam War, and Congress cut funding to the South Vietnamese government almost in half, to $700 million. They also passed an energy bill that established for the first time efficiency mandates for cars as well as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Other laws addressed transparency in government, individuals with disabilities, and control of toxic substances. Their efforts to expand health care coverage failed.
On the downside, the author contends that the very success of the campaign to loosen the House rules inadvertently jump-started the gridlock and partisanship that afflicts Congress today. With more subcommittees, more amendments, and more roll call votes, the opportunities to expose and attack the opposition multiplied. He writes, “Few Democrats appreciated that the reforms might unintentionally help to undermine [the House’s] bipartisan traditions or provide Republicans with enhanced means for planning an assault on the House majority.”
Lawrence cites other contributing factors, arguably more telling, for the decline of bipartisanship and the ethic of compromise, not least of which was the Republicans’ sheer frustration at being in the minority decade after decade and of being ignored or outmaneuvered by the Democrats.
Then, of course, there was the appearance in 1979 of freshman House member Newt Gingrich, who thought the time was ripe for a full frontal assault on the hegemony of the Democrats. The Georgia Republican was wont to deploy extreme epithets in battle – what some wags termed the new “politics of personal destruction.” The opposition wasn’t just wrong, they were dangerously or immorally so. Agreeing or compromising with them was almost akin to treason.
A few of the class of ’74 survived the political wars. In 2010, Rep. George Miller and Sen. Christopher Dodd were among the handful of alums still standing. They helped President Barack Obama pass the Affordable Care Act.