Watergate baby to Tea Party Republicans: Build something

If you hadn’t seen that wide shot of the House chamber during the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, you might not know that Congress is back in town.

It’s hard to tell these days. Are they here or aren’t they?

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The last time a Congress was in session as seldom as this one, we were in a world war and a lot of members were serving abroad. Now the far-right Tea Party members, who effectively control the place, go home and boast of effectively shutting down this branch of government.

Just before they left for the MLK holiday, conservatives blocked a vote on extending benefits to the most needy of our unemployed. They didn’t seem to notice the cruel irony or, even worse, the sheer cruelty of the whole thing.

Now — we see — they’re back, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is calling a three-day “retreat.” He wants Tea Party members to support immigration reform and to stop using the debt-ceiling issue to shut the government down.

We “Watergate babies” used to have retreats, too. Our class of newcomers, elected in 1974, was 75 strong, the largest Democratic class in modern history. And now, almost 40 years later, the new House majority has the largest group of Republican newcomers ever.

The two groups simply couldn’t be more different.

Our retreats, held in the Virginia countryside, were focused on how to make the government more active on behalf of people. We wanted healthcare for more people, stronger environmental protection, more education and tougher regulations.

The Tea Party newcomers, four decades later, want to severely weaken if not destroy government, while humiliating its public servants and belittling those who take money from it — unless, of course, they are the wealthy and the powerful.

During that week before the King holiday, perhaps the best-known member of our post-Watergate group, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), announced his retirement. It was a metaphor for the grand finale of the Watergate Babies.

In the first half of Miller’s career, he was in the House majority and in a leadership position; it was a time when he had the most power and did the most good.

He dramatically expanded access to quality education for poor children. He took on powerful developers and expanded public lands and the protection of them.

And he wasn’t alone. It’s safe to say that in those decades, whenever a piece of landmark legislation passed or an injustice was uncovered and addressed, a member of that class was usually involved.

In the House, Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.) fought to create the Earned Income Tax Credit (still a major part of the safety net for the working poor). Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) took on big polluters and forced the government to enforce the Clean Air Act and other laws.

Some of us left earlier than we would have liked, usually losing races for the U.S. Senate. But others won Senate seats and became leaders on critical issues: Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), on climate change; Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), authoring the Americans With Disabilities Act; Paul Simon (D-Ill.), trying to shame the world into facing the Rwanda genocide; Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), getting protections for the Alaskan Wilderness; and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), passing reform of the financial sector.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a pretty breathtaking body of work, especially now that we see the Republican-led congressional disappearing act.

That jamboree of activism hit the wall with a thud in 1994 when Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) engineered Republican control of the House for the first time in several decades. For all but four of Miller’s second 20 years, he’s been in the minority and, even worse for him and others who went to Congress to push for the government activism, the Republican majority is now controlled by far-right forces who see government as the enemy. 

So never mind that being in the House minority at any time leaves one virtually powerless to impact the agenda — in this House, there is no agenda. There are very few opportunities for Miller and fellow Democrats to even debate anything.

So what will be the Tea Party’s answer to our body of work some decades from now? I ask the question more out of puzzlement than anger; I learned very early in my congressional career to have a certain respect for anyone who got elected to the House.

But it’s strange to see these members put themselves and their families through rough campaigns under enormous pressure and then work to tear down the institution they were elected to.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be a fly on the wall at the GOP retreat?

Will they really take up three whole days just planning more destruction? 

Or, at some point this week, do they decide to start building something?

Moffett represented Connecticut’s 6th Congressional District from 1975 to 1983. He is currently chairman of The Moffett Group, an international consulting firm.