Dwindling Watergate Class of ’74 Disdains Today’s Reforms With AM-Watergate Babies-List
WASHINGTON (AP) _ They were elected 20 years ago next month, and brashly barged into the House replete with long sideburns, knitted vests and a thirst for a cleaner, more open government.
This January, no more than 10 of the 92 freshmen of the Class of ’74 will remain in the House, plus seven others who have migrated to the Senate. And just as clothing styles have grown more conservative, so has the mood of the voters and the changes they want to see in Washington - to the chagrin of many of the so-called Watergate babies.
Back then, an appalled public watched the disgraced President Nixon’s downfall and concluded that it was time to invigorate Congress. Today’s cynicism is aimed more at Congress, and restrictive proposals such as term limits and a balanced budget amendment are in vogue.
″When I came to the Congress, a large percentage of the public thought Congress was fixable,″ said Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., among the six Class of ’74 members ending their House careers this year. ″I guess maybe today, they’re not so sure.″
Derrick was among 75 Democrats and 17 Republicans first elected to the House in November 1974. Although Republican Gerald Ford sat in the White House, the election brought the Democratic edge in the House to an overwhelming 291-144 margin, a dramatic 43-seat pickup. The Senate also went Democratic by 62-38, and party leaders proclaimed an era of ″congressional government.″
With Watergate fresh on the nation’s psyche and the Vietnam War still being fought, the new House Democrats knew what they wanted. They were against the war and big defense budgets, and for environmental and social programs.
To help achieve that, they took on several of the party’s old, conservative leaders, dumping three committee chairmen and helping to enact rules changes that shifted power from leaders to the increasingly liberal rank-and-file. They succeeded because they agreed to vote as a bloc, a move that made them a potent force.
″Smaller classes can have the same missionary zeal, but not have the same impact we had by our force of numbers,″ remembers Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y.
Not only were they more liberal than most veteran lawmakers, but they were generally a lot younger. Six of them were under 30, and collectively they brought the average age of House members below 50 for the first time since World War II.
Of course, things did not always go smoothly.
When the freshman Democrats began demanding that committee chairmen explain why they should continue heading their panels, sparks sometimes flew. Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., recalled one session at which his fellow freshmen were grilling 73-year-old Chairman F. Edward Hebert, D-La., of the House Armed Services Committee.
″He said, ’All right, boys and girls, let me tell you what it’s really like around here,‴ Mineta said last week.
Soon afterward, Hebert and two other longtime committee chairmen lost their jobs.
Despite Democrats’ big congressional majorities, things were just as rocky when it came to legislating. The limp economy and energy shortages were the big issues of mid-1970s, and Democrats did succeed in enacting tax cuts and some jobs programs.
But Ford vetoed 32 bills in 1975 and 1976, arguing that Democrats were too eager to spend money, and Congress overrode only eight of the vetoes. And it took years for members of the Class of ’74 to enact some of the environmental bills they wanted.
″The legislative process didn’t work as rapidly as I’d hoped,″ said Rep. William Hughes, D-N.J., a class member who is departing.
The years have come and gone, and the rebels of ’74 have blended in with the rest of their colleagues - for good and for bad.
Of the class’s 13 Democrats still in the House, Derrick is a chief deputy whip; Mineta and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., are committee chairmen; and the remaining 10 head subcommittees. The two Republicans, Reps. Henry Hyde, R- Ill., and William Goodling, R-Pa., are also influential.
But of the original 92, at least 10 have faced important legal or ethical accusations while in Congress, and at least two served time in prison.
The remaining Watergate babies look out at the world and see problems that are more complex than they were in the 1970s. They also say they see an angry electorate that, in its frustration, is grasping at quick-fix solutions like limiting lawmakers’ terms in office.
″There was a stronger level of confidence then that people could change things at the ballot box,″ says Rep. Philip Sharp, D-Ind., who is retiring. ″I think there is less confidence today and a wider cynicism that the electoral process can make much difference. I think that’s a big mistake by the American people.″