Much of what we see in Washington started 50 years ago this week

Watergate building
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Watergate building

The Watergate break-in and the congressional inquiries, journalistic exposés, impeachment hearings it instigated convulsed the nation a half century ago. The bungled burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters on June 17, 1972, occurred just four and a half months before Richard Nixon won the most lopsided victory in American presidential history. But the seeds had already been planted that would produce historic changes few could have contemplated on that Election Day.

Two years later, only 12 weeks after Nixon had resigned the presidency and ruined the Republican brand, the nation went to the polls and chose a very different type of political leadership. The Class of 1974 — particularly in the House of Representatives — was younger, less deferential to seniority, more liberal on policy matters and more activist in demeanor than the sclerotic Congress they joined. “We were a conquering army,” recalled freshman George Miller of California, who at 29, was closer in age to anti-war demonstrators in the streets than the average age of House members. Some of the incoming freshmen seemed shocked at their own achievement. “We were young. We looked weird,” said Connecticut’s Toby Moffett. “I can’t even believe we got elected!”

With few exceptions like political scientists Andrew Maguire (N.J.) and Tim Wirth (Colo.), few appreciated how the archaic structure of the institution they were about to join precluded the implementation of the progressive policies they favored. Once in Washington, however, they discovered a sizeable coterie of reformers who had conspired against the powers of conservative and autocratic chairmen since the late 1950s with little success. With the arrival of over 70 Democratic freshmen in January, 1975, however, the balance of power abruptly shifted.

“The reinforcements have arrived!” crowed New York’s Bella Abzug. Even before they had been sworn in as members, the freshmen allied themselves almost unanimously — and regardless of ideology — with the phalanx of reformers like Phil Burton (Calif.), Don Fraser (Minn.) and Dick Bolling (Mo.) to form a progressive majority that would upend the Caucus and the House. It was what one freshmen, Les AuCoin or Oregon, called a “hinge point in history” although, he acknowledged, “we didn’t know it.”

The post-Watergate class is primarily remembered for having challenged the 64-year-old seniority system that ensconced as chairmen a disproportionate share of conservatives who, secure in their one-party districts, had faced little opposition and therefore dominated an increasingly liberalizing Democratic Caucus. The decision to oust three of the chairmen sent a powerful message to those who remained: Continue to vote more with the Republican minority than with your fellow Democrats and the Caucus would deprive you of your gavel.

The conservatives, who had dominated the leadership for decades, knew the jig was up. “Watch out,” said the segregationist Phil Landrum (Ga.), who was beginning his 22nd year in the House, “the revolution is going to get you!” Over the next two years, another half dozen chairs retired (as did Speaker Carl Albert) or were defeated as the reformers cemented the linkage between leadership positions to conformity to the national Democratic agenda.

The post-Watergate reformers did far more than weaken the seniority system.

Additional changes enhanced the power of the Caucus and the elected leadership and disseminated power far more widely on Capitol Hill. The ability of senior members to dominate the membership on powerful subcommittees was replaced with a bidding process that gave access to junior members. The Old Guard was also barred from holding a chairmanship of more than one subcommittee, empowering new members concerned with issues like the environment, weapons control, energy policy and disability rights to seize power on increasingly autonomous subcommittees that churned out progressive legislation the chairs and other senior members dared to ignore at their peril.

Practices that allowed senior members to dominate hearings, such as relegating junior members to the very end of the questioning period, were discarded. So were restrictions that prevented members from offering amendments to legislation on the House floor where the Caucus majority could challenge the work product of a committee that sometimes seemed a bit too sympathetic to the interests it was supposed to be regulating. The number of floor amendments exploded, causing party elders to flare against the reforms, but proposals to restrict even the Republican minority were resisted in the name of open debate and transparency. If the conservative Republicans wanted a vote, insisted Miller, “they are entitled to it … We cannot risk being efficient and do away with a democracy.” Some day, he presciently warned, Democrats might find themselves in the minority.

Frustrated by being denied information by the imperial presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, reformers institutionalized an aggressive system of oversight that, in the case of the Ervin Watergate hearings, Rodino impeachment hearings and Church CIA inquiries, had demonstrated a level of congressional competence few Americans had ever observed in the era preceding television coverage of committees and the House and Senate floor. The reformers insisted that every committee devote one subcommittee to oversight, and both Democrats and Republicans alike quickly acclimated to a more activist and inquisitive role concerning the operations of the executive agencies.

The changes the Watergate scandal and its aftermath brought to Capitol Hill were revolutionary and democratizing, but they were not without controversy, especially in the remaining years of the century.

A new generation of conservative Republicans from the party in the revitalized South and border states began arriving in the late 1970s, bringing a sharp-edged ideological outlook that, like those in the Class of ’74, often targeted their own stultified leaders as much as the political opposition.

A new generation of journalists (and the emergence of unregulated, ideologically-driven talk radio and then cable news programs), the Watergate scandal, combined with the alienation following nearly a decade of Vietnam protests to fuel skepticism about elected leaders, government and the political system itself.

Many of the reforms initiated after 1974, combined with the ideological realignment of parties and heightened competitiveness for the congressional majority stemming from the narrowing of margins between Democrats and Republicans, helped to draw sharp distinctions between the parties and harsh divisions among Americans on a broad range of cultural and policy issues.

Historians are cautious about ascribing inflated significance to any one event in the shaping of our history. Unquestionably, reform was circulating on Capitol Hill before Watergate. But the scandal fueled a level of reaction to the archaic legislative structures that might otherwise have taken many more years to emerge.

As with all political change, there were many unforeseen outcomes and unintended consequences as a result of those reforms, but what is not debatable is that the accelerant that brought reform and its consequences to the Congress was planted by those five men at the Watergate office building — and their handlers at the White House — a half century ago.

John A. Lawrence served as chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and the forthcoming “Arc of Power: Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership 2005-2010.” Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC. He blogs as DOMEocracy.

Tags congressional leadership Congressional oversight George Miller political polarization Post-Watergate reforms Richard Nixon seniority skepticism Toby Moffett United States House of Representatives Watergate burglaries Watergate scandal

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