How Congress Cracked

To understand why the Hill is so dysfunctional today, just look at 1974.

Cracks appear over House Speaker Paul Ryan, who holds up the People's Gavel.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

A few months after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Democrats captured nearly 50 House seats and several Senate seats in the November election. In similar fashion to the Tea Party wave of 2010, the ballot results in ‘74 brought a different variety of politician to Washington—Democrats known as the “Watergate Babies—and they helped change the Democratic Party (then still controlled by a number of more conservative Southerners) and the way Congress functioned. In The Class of ‘74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship, John A. Lawrence—who served almost 40 years as a congressional staffer, eventually becoming chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi—explains just how this group changed the Hill. But his book also helps us understand why these changes didn’t stick, and just why Congress has sunk to new depths in the Trump era.

I recently spoke by phone with Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California’s Washington Center, whom I have known socially for many years. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the effect of Watergate on American politics, what Newt Gingrich did to Washington, and what John Boehner understood about the Republican Party.

Isaac Chotiner: Why exactly was the 1974 congressional class so important?

John A. Lawrence: If you’re going to understand the roots of contemporary partisanship, you really need to go back to this era, because it was in the 1970s that [much] of what has grown into a highly polarized, highly partisan political system and electorate took root. We have a Congress today which is largely not functioning. It has given up on its role as producing legislation, as conducting investigations, as examining through oversight the activities of the executive branch. When you look at what this class of 1974 did, they took a Congress that looked a lot like that and turned it into a much more dynamic and operative political institution.

This a class that Norm Ornstein, who’s one of the really great congressional scholars, has called the most consequential class in the 20th century, and yet it’s been labeled the Watergate Babies. For 40 years, people have minimized the role of this class. It’s an important class not only because of what happened in the 1970s, but because the role that they played so demonstrates how a group of committed, ideological but pragmatic young people can come into the Congress, into an institution that had really become so dysfunctional, and really focus it to be more democratized, to change the power structure.

I think a lot of people like myself who are not experts on Congress would say, “Look, in the 1960s you had a wave of incredible legislation pass Congress. In 1974, you had Congress stand up to Richard Nixon.” What then was so dysfunctional?

The period of productivity that you mentioned was the Great Society period—a very, very brief period of time, basically from early 1964 to 1966. After that, very little legislation was passed. It was possible because in that very brief period of time, Democrats had such a large majority that they were able to push through legislation with the help of many Republicans, I should point out, who occupied more moderate positions. That actually was a key component of the Congress.

This bipartisan coalition could overcome what was called the conservative coalition, of conservative Democrats and Republicans that blocked much of that legislation in the years leading up to the Great Society, and that blocked much of that legislation in the years following, until you get to 1974 and once again Democrats get a very large majority. They’re able to effectuate a lot of institutional changes that disseminated power more widely throughout the caucus, so that the chairmen were not as able to block legislation and to singlehandedly determine the kind of legislation that would be considered. As they disseminated this power, they gave younger people chairmanships. They brought power to the subcommittees instead of just all in the full committees, and a lot of issues that had been bottled up for many years, whether that’s environment or energy reform or women’s rights, education or children’s health, these were all issues that had been bottled up in these committees for many years.

So what then happened to break Congress again, and when did it break?

At the same time that this class comes in, you have the resurgence of a new conservative movement that comes out of the ashes of 1964. The successes of the Great Society and then the successes of the Democratic Party following Watergate obscured to some extent how revived this conservative movement was, not simply within Congress but externally as well.

You also had the emergence of a lot of divisive cultural issues, whether that’s abortion or school busing or flag burning or draft resistance, that become vehicles by which conservatives are able to inject these very highly partisan issues into the congressional debate. In part, they can integrate them into the congressional debate because the liberalized rules that the Class of ’74 and others helped to put into place give everyone in the Congress a greater opportunity to offer amendments and to control portions of the debate.

There are many other issues that are developing similarly in this period of the late 1970s, including a lot of dissatisfaction within a younger group of conservatives who look at the changing demographics and the changing electoral performances in the South, in the Sun Belt, in many suburban areas, and think that, notwithstanding the losses the Republican Party in the House has suffered, they have the capacity to build a majority, but they can only do that by taking much more extreme positions. That emphasizes race, that emphasizes personal conduct and ethics, and it’s out of this movement that you really see Newt Gingrich and that movement come and emerge and become the driving conservative force. By the time you get to the mid-1980s, you’re really starting to see a diminution of ideological diversity within the parties and a rising level of division between the two parties that plays out over the next 20 years, into our contemporary highly politicized environment.

Do you attribute any of the blame to Democrats? I think a lot of Republicans would say, one, the Bork nomination, and then later on the way Harry Reid did certain things, at least on the Senate side, played a role in polarizing these institutions and exacerbating problems.

Sure. I don’t think that one party bears lone responsibility here, but I think that one looks more to the Republican Party because from the tactical standpoint, the Republican Party viewed itself as the minority. It was fighting to get towards majority status, and to some extent the Democrats were not sufficiently aware of this growing political strength.

The Democrats, when they strike back, when they finally realize what is going on, and for example Jim Wright in the House begins to shut down the open rules that reforms had put in place and that had allowed many of the Republicans to offer these controversial amendments, which helped to identify weak and vulnerable Democratic members—that effort by Wright is used as an illustration of the tyranny of the Democratic majority, and is cited by virtually every Republican I talk to as where they think this more heavily polarized political environment originates.

Was there a moment during your time in Congress where you began to notice things going awry?

It may not have been a particular incident, but I think certainly in the House the rise of Gingrich and the Gingrich faction is very significant. It really stigmatized government itself, and employed a level of rhetoric that demonized the political opposition. I think that that tended to change the nature of the debate.

That went hand in hand with the emergence of these issues that could be described as cultural issues or ethical issues, policy issues that are seen as rights rather than simply as policy debates. I think it became more and more difficult as those issues grew in prominence to find common ground, because it’s one thing if you have to find common ground in a highway transportation bill. You know, you can figure out what the number is going to be or what projects you’re going to do. But when you’re asked to compromise on something you see as an ethical issue or a cultural value, or a religious issue for that matter, that becomes much more difficult.

We’ve seen an across-the-board Republican surrender to Trumpism in the House. In the Senate, we’ve seen a similar surrender with a few people sort of speaking up occasionally. Have you been surprised or depressed by this?

I think I’ve been depressed. I’ve been a little less than surprised because I’ve seen, really since the Republican takeover in the 2010 elections, the seeds of what you’re describing coming into fruition. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, particularly in 2010, 2012, you had this very large infusion of people out of the Tea Party and then out of the Freedom Caucus who were running as much against their own leadership as they were against the Democrats in some ways.

John Boehner very often talked to me and he talked to the press about this, that the elevation of the Republican Party into majority status came because it had a group of people arrive that in many cases had won nominations and won elections without the help of the party, without toeing the party line. This is a group that doesn’t value the institution, that has contempt for it. When I see Trump coming along, I think that he’s reading the grassroots in many of those districts in a way that was very accurate and explains the origins of many of those people who have found themselves in Congress and really changing the nature of Congress.

What does surprise me, though, is the complete abdication of congressional responsibility by the leadership. If there was one common thread that runs through the last 40 years in Congress, really since Vietnam and Watergate, it is a bipartisan effort to reassert Congress as a coequal branch, to hold particularly the presidency accountable through oversight, through investigation, through hearings, and by pushing its own legislation rather than simply doing whatever the president tells it to do. Yet, if you look at Paul Ryan today, he’s saying he’s not going to bring an immigration bill to the floor until the president tells him what he wants. He’s not going to bring a gun bill to the floor until he knows what the president wants. He’s not conducting investigations into Russia’s interference into the election or the failure of the administration to take further action. They’re terrified of primaries. They’re terrified of an activist base that has no institutional loyalty whatever.

You knew Boehner pretty well. What did you think of him when you were you working with him, and do you think he would be doing things differently if he were in Paul Ryan’s job today?

Shortly after Republicans won the election in 2010, I ran into Boehner. It was before he was speaker, but I had known him. I had worked with him for years on the Education Committee. He was the chairman of the committee and I was the Democratic staff director. I congratulated him, and he said to me, “In six months I’ll be more popular in your caucus than I am in mine.” We knew that he had risen to the speakership and the Republicans had risen to the majority by virtue of this infusion of people who did not want to play by the rules, did not want to respect the integrity of the institution, and did not want to be legislatively productive. They viewed the institution to which they had been elected and the leadership of that institution as the enemy, whether they were Democrats or Republicans.

Boehner, look. Boehner is a very conservative guy, but he’s sort of an old-school conservative. He got into politics because he was running, of all things, a plastics company, and he was annoyed at government regulations and taxes. He wasn’t really moved to get into politics because of the social issues. He was much more into the traditional economic and regulatory policies, but that’s not where these other people were coming from, this newer group. I think he was very frustrated by their lack of collaborativeness, their lack of respect.

Do you think he’d be handling Trump differently?

Oh, I think that by the time he left, he was pretty exasperated at the whole process, and I think what he did was to … you know, he cut a deal with Obama in 2013 on the deficit. It was a deal that, as with previous continuing resolutions and fiscal cliffs, he had to depend on Democratic votes to pass, and he just got out of Dodge because he had had enough.

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.