Congressional Decline: Déjà vu All Over Again

Back in 2000, David Frum wrote a fascinating and oft-overlooked book, How We Got Here: The 70s, the Decade that Brought You Modern Life for Better or Worse, which traced the roots of contemporary politics and culture to the 1970s, rather than the 1960s as is typically argued. Scholars of Congress also frequently get their historiography wrong, arguing that Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the Republican “revolution” of 1994 put Congress on its current path of decline.

Better accounts, such as John A. Lawrence’s new book The Class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship, understand that Congress started down that path long before the Gingrich-led GOP takeover of the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic control. The origins of today’s dysfunctional legislature really go back to the transformative reforms of the 1970s, which were instituted by liberals intent on democratizing Congress.

Other scholarship extensively supports Lawrence’s claims—so much so that the Congress after 1975 is typically called the “post-reform Congress.” The Class of ’74 is an interesting, readable exposition about the reformers, their struggle to transform the legislative branch, and the consequences of their choices. Reading The Class of ’74 reveals as much about Congress today as it does about Congress 44 years ago. Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California who spent several years serving as chief of staff to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), tells a story that is not only interesting in its own right but helps explain, in Frum’s words, how we got here.

A New Breed of Politician

As Lawrence argues in the book, though it was not a presidential but merely a midterm election, the 1974 election cycle transformed American politics by bringing a new kind of politician to Congress. What brought this influx was, in part, an electorate broadened by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (granting 18-year-olds the right to vote). The main reason, however, that 93 new members of the House of Representatives (predominantly liberal Democrats) took office in January of 1975 was the popular backlash against the Watergate scandal and resulting resignation of President Nixon.

These new members cared little for the norms and traditions of Congress, and sought to reform the institution to make it more immediately responsive to popular opinion. As Class of ’74 member George Miller (D-Calif.) proclaimed, “We came here to take the Bastille. We destroyed the institution by turning the lights on.”

The legislature they joined in 1975, today known among Congress scholars as the “Textbook Congress,” was a body dominated by committees and especially by the committee chairs. This Textbook Congress, in turn, had been shaped by Progressive-era reforms that reduced party leaders’ control over appointing committee members and their chairs. The ensuing power vacuum was filled by committee chairs selected on the basis of their seniority rather than by party leaders. This meant that committee chairs were independent representatives appealing to their constituencies rather than advocates of a national party agenda. Because the Democratic Party was dominant in the South during the first half of the 20th century (a relic of the old Civil War coalitions), Southern, conservative Democrats held office for long periods of time, acquiring seniority and therefore the committee chairs.

The power the chairs held was immense: They could make and unmake subcommittees, refuse to hold hearings in order to block legislation, and determine the hiring of staff. Closed committee hearings insulated them from accountability to the press or to the public. The conservative Southern Democrats wielded these powers while being indebted to none of their colleagues for the privilege. They used their authority to advance the interests of their constituents (or rather, their conservative, white constituents) at the expense of their more liberal Democratic colleagues and the constituencies they represented.

The Class of ’74 was determined to change all that. Although they were not the first group to challenge the power structure of the Textbook Congress, they provided the numbers and the energy to transform that structure. The Democratic Study Group had been established in 1959 to strengthen liberal Democrats and weaken the standing of conservatives within the party, going so far as to pressure Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) to strip conservative Democrats of their seniority should they endorse a Republican presidential candidate. New rules promulgated by the Democratic Caucus in 1973 established a process for chairs to be selected by a caucus vote rather than being automatically appointed by seniority.

The new members in 1975 used these and other procedural openings to restructure power in the House, decentralizing power to subcommittees and individual members, and restoring some modest powers to party leaders (thus circumventing the chairs from below and from above). Instead of joining the pre-existing liberal Democratic Study Group, they created the New Members Caucus. They stripped several committee chairs of their assignments and weakened the powers of committee chairs in general. At the same time, they gave the Speaker of the House increased control over committee assignments, and restored the Speaker’s control over who would sit on the Rules Committee (which sends measures to the floor for consideration).

While the new members’ reforms did take some power away from committee chairmen and return it to the House leadership, on the whole, they fragmented power and made the House much more difficult to manage.

The Politics of Confrontation

The most fascinating part of Lawrence’s story is that it reveals the deep roots of contemporary polarization and dysfunction in Congress. It is an account that flies in the face of an interpretation of history that one sees from many pundits and political scientists today: that Congress’ dysfunction is the product of reforms introduced by Speaker Gingrich and the Republicans after their 1994 triumph.

For example, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (2012) attributes today’s problems to the fact that, in their words, “one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier.” They argue that “Republicans in office have driven both the widening of the ideological gap between the parties and the strategic hyperpartisanship on such crucial issues as financial stabilization, economic recovery, deficits and debt, health-care reform, and climate change.”

In their telling, the Republicans broke Congress by becoming an ideologically extreme, homogeneous party.

Less polemical is Matthew Grossmann and David A. Hopkins’ Asymmetric Politics (2016), a book that has become especially popular among political scientists who study parties and polarization. According to Grossmann and Hopkins, the GOP is an ideological party whereas the Democratic Party is a coalition of groups and interests. This difference supposedly means that Republicans are unable to compromise compared to their Democratic counterparts. During the 1970s and since, Grossmann and Hopkins argue, Republicans have moved far to the Right while Democrats have moved only marginally to the Left.

According to these books (and several others that there isn’t room in this review to mention), the development of the Republican Party as an ideologically cohesive and extreme party is a critical cause of contemporary political dysfunction. Immersion in this school of thought would leave one under the impression that the Democratic Party has changed only slightly since the 1960s, at least compared to a fundamentally transformed Republican Party.

Lawrence (a Democrat, as I mentioned) debunks this idea in no uncertain terms. In fact, the transformation of the Democratic Party during the 1960s and 1970s follows almost exactly the same trajectory as that of the Republican Party 20 years later. The Republican shift to the Right, far from being the driver of contemporary polarization, was a consequence of developments that had already turned the Democratic Party into a more homogeneously liberal party.

The transformation of the Democratic Party in the 1970s, as depicted in Class of ’74, is stunningly identical to more recent developments in the GOP. Democrats took to “primary-ing” moderates and conservatives to purge them from the party, eliminating congressional giants such as Howard W. Smith (D-Va.). They used the party caucus to undermine seniority and the independence of committees. They even proposed term limits for committee chairs long before Speaker Gingrich pushed to make these a reality.

They deliberately fought against becoming “institutionalized”—that is, against placing the good of the institution above immediate policy considerations. As Paul Tsongas (D-Mass,) put it, the Class of ’74 sought to “resist integration into the House for the time being,” acting not within the institutional structure but outside of it. Rather than working through the existing institutional structures, such as committees and party caucuses, they formed their own groups and sought to undermine the existing structures. They openly discussed ousting their Speaker, Carl Albert (D-Okla.), for being too accommodating to the other party and for being unwilling to twist the arms of moderates within the caucus. After Speaker Albert retired, he wrote in his autobiography: “I tried to be the leader of this group that refused to be led.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

That the Democratic Party made a sharp left turn before the Republican Party made a sharp right one, and that, in fact, the former development prompted the latter, is not lost on Lawrence. But he is reluctant to blame the Class of ’74 for making the House dysfunctional. “In the post-reform era, there was no shortage of disciplined and forceful leaders,” he writes. “True, the House was more difficult to manipulate and a greater challenge to manage, but it was hardly a disorganized or chaotic body.”

His eight years as aide to a Democratic House Speaker give Lawrence the credibility to make such claims. However, the weight of the evidence suggests that the consequences of the Class’s reforms were much more profound than he wants to admit. Even he acknowledges just a few pages after the above quote that “One needs to go back much further than the emergence of Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s (to which Democrats invariably point) . . . to appreciate the antecedents of today’s deep divisions and gridlock. The origins arguably date to the mid-1970s examined in this book.”

Translation: The Republicans didn’t ruin Congress in the mid-1990s; the Democrats started that process 20 years earlier.

How Congress Was Lost

Engaging in a petty game of “Who Started It?” misses the more fundamental lessons of the 1970s, though. In reality, neither party ruined Congress, because neither party was in charge to begin with. Both before and after the reforms of the 1970s, party leaders were in a weak position to influence members of the House, who relied much more on support from outside the formal party organization (local coalitions, interest groups, and external funding organizations) than from within it.

When we talk about the Republican Party or the Democratic Party moving in a particular ideological direction, we too often imply that they have agency—that their members made deliberate decisions to reconstruct their coalitions along different lines, or that they had sufficient authority to drive the individual members of their rank-and-file to behave a certain way.

The history of the past century suggests something very different: American political parties are dependent variables. They respond to developments beyond their control. It was the external environment, Lawrence writes, that drove the Democrats to the left. The Voting Rights Act made many Southern districts more liberal, allowing liberal Democrats to primary the moderates out of existence—but not liberal enough to win them, therefore handing those districts to Republicans. The influx of young voters due to the Twenty-Sixth Amendment and the salience of opposition to the Vietnam War transformed the Democratic Party coalition.

The external environment for both parties changed, which changed their tactics and behavior. The main story of the Class of ’74, therefore, is subtler than merely describing which party became ideologically extreme first. The main lesson of the Watergate/Vietnam era is the ongoing decline of parties as strong organizations that control what their members do. Democratic Party leaders were incapable of bringing the members elected in 1974 into the institution and shaping their behavior. The neophytes determined the veterans’ course, not vice versa.

It should therefore have been no surprise that, more than 30 years later, when a new breed of Republican won seats in the House, the GOP’s leaders would experience the same frustrations that Democratic leaders had experienced a generation before. How Congress got here is explained, in part, by what happened to the Democratic Party in the 1970s; but it is more fundamentally explained by developments that have weakened parties in American politics for over a century.