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Changes of ’74, ’94 Still Reverberate in Congress

The 109th Congress begins its work amid two important anniversaries. Thirty years ago, the first post-Watergate class took its place in Congress. Ten years ago, Republican revolutionaries seized both houses of Congress. In their own way, both classes have profoundly shaped the institution.

Politically, 1974 was a tumultuous year. President Richard Nixon, who had been mired in the Watergate scandal for most of his second term, resigned Aug. 9, a mere three months before the midterm elections. When President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, the public sent Washington a message that enough was enough.

In all, 90 new Members joined the House that year, 75 of them Democrats. That enabled the Democrats to increase their majority to 291-144 — a stunning net pickup of 43 seats. In the Senate, Democrats gained four seats, increasing their majority to 62-38.

The freshman class of 1974 instantly made itself a force to be reckoned with. As Roll Call reported 30 years ago, when the class met for the first time, they believed they had earned a universal mandate to “push for Congressional Reform, to democratize Congress, ameliorate the seniority system, and open up the process to the public and the press.”

Retired Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.) echoed that sentiment. “As a class, our biggest goal was to democratize the process of selecting chairmen and get a greater voice in policymaking,” Downey, now a lobbyist, said in a recent interview.

The first pillar of the status quo to fall to the reform bloc was the seniority system. Before they came to power, Downey said, the Caucus “routinely picked the next person in seniority” to fill committee chairmanships. The Watergate class, acting as a unit, put a stop to that.

“We set up a process of interviewing chairmen as a class, which had never been done before,” he recalled. “Part of that process was literally bringing the chairmen before the class, and then deciding whether or not we wanted to support them.”

Then-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) still recalls the end of strict adherence to seniority with a sense of satisfaction. Although first elected in 1972, she quickly found herself allied with the Watergate class.

“Things were very entrenched” when she first arrived, she said. “The concept of electing chairmen was totally unheard of. … All of a sudden when the class of ’74 came in [the chairmen] were very friendly.”

Schroeder recalls with particular glee the ousting of Armed Services Chairman Edward Hebert (D-La.).

“When I got put on the Armed Services Committee,” Schroeder said, “the chairman went nuts. He didn’t want me. He was horrified. … So when he got removed from his chairmanship, it was a wonderful day. Life became much easier.”

Changing the seniority system really “opened up all sorts of things,” said Schroeder, who now heads the Association of American Publishers. “I think you ended up with a much better system, where younger people had to be listened to.” No longer could Members just “check in and try to outlive everyone.”

Congressional scholars say the changes had other unintended consequences. The reforms led to a “strengthening of [the Democratic] party in the House,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The Democratic Caucus became more unified as Southern conservatives disappeared” and were marginalized by the growing number of liberals in the party. Within a decade or two, this became a problem for the party as Americans drifted to the right.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was one of the 15 Republicans first elected to the House in 1974. While the Democratic Caucus made dramatic changes, “in the Republican caucus it didn’t make as much difference. Fifteen of us were all that were new. And that won’t make the same difference” as 75 out of 291.

Indeed, in its look back at the first nine months of the Watergate class’s freshman term, Roll Call reported that “it was not an even matchup. It was a hundred first termers against the combined age, wisdom and tradition of Congress past and present — The System.”

Outnumbered and outgunned, The System lost.

The Senate underwent some change as well. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), first elected in 1974 and now serving his sixth term, recalls that it was an “interesting time.” Although its internal changes were not as sweeping as those made in the House — among other things, strict seniority continues to hold sway for chairmanships in the more cautious upper body — Senate Democrats did institute several significant reforms during this time, including limiting Senators to one chairmanship of a committee at a time.

Leahy celebrates the policy victories from that period more than the institutional ones.

He recalls that while he was the junior-most member of the Armed Services Committee, “we finally voted by a one-vote margin to refuse any more authorization” for the war in Vietnam. Congress’ refusal to support the conflict helped put an end to U.S. involvement in the war in Southeast Asia.

Compared to 1974, the Republican revolution of 1994 came at a much different time. The public was frustrated with the Democratic Party and with President Bill Clinton’s seeming inability to pass a workable health care reform plan. In a landslide reminiscent of the one 20 years before, Republicans sent 73 freshmen to the House and netted 56 seats, giving the GOP a House majority for the first time in 40 years and a Senate majority for the first time in eight years.

Grassley, who was a Senator by the time of the 1994 revolution, sees a sharp contrast between the reforms of 1994 and 1974.

The GOP’s “Contract with America” — the 10-point policy plan that helped sweep Republicans into power — was “more substantive,” he said. Republicans “didn’t just deal with the changes of things within the Republican Party and how the House operates. … Democrats are more interested in Washington functioning, Republicans are more interested in seeing America functioning.”

But Democrats see other differences. Schroeder, citing the larger-than-life personality of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the skillful but polarizing architect of the 1994 takeover, said the Republican revolution was more about “Them versus Us. I think it was the Gingrich personality. He came in very partisan, that was his claim to fame.”

Leahy also bemoaned what he sees as the increase in partisanship since 1994. In his view, the 1994 revolution “was much more of a partisan revolution, and ’74 was more of a good-government revolution. There was far less mean-spiritedness, far less partisanship, people were working to make everything better.”

While Republicans of 1994 couldn’t be further ideologically from the Democrats of 1974, they have leveraged the institutional reforms their predecessors began, Mann said. By weakening the Congressional committees as independent power bases, the reforms of both revolutionary classes have effectively centralized power in the leadership.

“Gingrich built on [their] reforms, and [Speaker Dennis] Hastert carried it far beyond Gingrich,” Mann said. This consolidation has led to the “utter demise of regular order, steering policy development away from committees to leadership, and [increased] efforts to deliver the president’s agenda by keeping the rank and file in line.”

Institutionally speaking, members of the class of 1974 would probably not “disagree with the direction the reforms” have taken, Mann said. They would, however, be “very unhappy that Republicans have moved into the majority and now use that authority.”

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