But the history of those reforms should serve as a warning to Democratic candidates hoping to become part of the next famous freshman class: Well-intentioned reforms to make Congress more decentralized or transparent can also complicate the process of enacting complex laws, making it that much harder to implement an ambitious agenda.
The freshman class of 1974 has long been disparaged as a youthful band of irrepressible (and sometimes disrespectful) reformers. Yet few of the freshmen were even aware of the need for rules reform until longtime House reform advocates explained that without them, the freshmen were unlikely to achieve any of their policy objectives.
Spurred into action, the freshmen quickly moved to challenge the seniority system that awarded chairmanships on the basis of tenure in office. This arrangement dated to bipartisan reforms in 1910 that aimed to block the speaker’s ability to select only loyalists as chairs.
While well-intentioned, in practice this system had enabled long-serving southern Democratic conservatives who rarely faced a Republican opponent to rule the House with little regard for their party’s elected leadership or caucus priorities. In 1961, the chairs of more than half of House committees voted with the minority Republicans more than 80 percent of the time.
In addition to their conservatism, these chairmen lorded over their committees. Longtime Armed Services chairman Carl Vinson of Georgia had allowed his committee members to ask one question per hearing for each year of service — and all questions required his preapproval. His successor, Edward Hébert of Louisiana, ignored those who challenged his pro-Vietnam War views. Even worse, in 1973 he forced the first woman and African American committee members, Pat Schroeder and Ron Dellums, to share a chair because he did not consider them full members of the committee because of their gender and race.
Younger members chafed at this treatment and their limited ability to gain power. “I don’t want to feel like a ghoul waiting around for people to die,” Charles Joelson of New Jersey complained before resigning to become a judge.
The 1974 freshman class banded together with veteran reformers to fix this problem. They forced the removal of three chairs (including Hébert), which, although it stopped short of eliminating the seniority system, served as an unmistakable warning to surviving chairs. In response, they became more attuned to the opinions and demands of other caucus members and became more reliable party votes.
The unity of the freshmen also shifted key decisions from the committee chairmen to the elected leadership, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and subcommittee chairs. Minority members also were granted more staff and money to promote their views. These reforms empowered less-senior members and allowed sometimes-contentious issues that had been obstructed at the committee level — Pentagon reform, consumer protection, energy efficiency — to move onto the legislative calendar.
The changes forced through by reformers in the 1970s altered what had been a largely closed and often secretive institution. Yet these reforms also had significant unintended consequences, some negative, both for the Class of ’74 and for subsequent reformers in both parties.
Making it easier to offer contentious amendments and demand recorded votes increased transparency and accountability for members. But as the number of recorded votes exploded from just 177 in 1969 to more than 800 by the early 1980s, both parties exploited the opportunity to force votes that stigmatized opponents.
More open rules, which governed two-thirds of the bills considered by the 94th Congress, enabled controversial votes to take place and the minority to secure a hearing for its ideas. But they also enabled Republican strategists to delay floor proceedings and force multiple votes on sensitive topics. Democrats revolted against these tactics by the early 1980s, sharply curtailing such permissive rules. This restriction expedited the pace of floor action, but also allowed conservative firebrands such as Newt Gingrich to characterize the long-standing Democratic majority as tyrannical.
Reformers also successfully pushed to televise proceedings in the 1970s, hoping that this newfound sunshine would enable voters to watch their elected officials deliberate. But institutionalists in both parties viewed live coverage with trepidation. David Dennis, an Indiana Republican, warned that cameras and microphones would transform lawmakers into self-promoting “prima donnas,” and future speaker Tip O’Neill worried that if a member was “picking his nose or scratching his ass, that’s what you’d see.”
Longtime observers of the House would acknowledge the prescience of these warnings. Certainly, a great deal of congressional time today is devoted to posturing and setting political traps for the opposition (or attempting to avoid creating political problems for oneself) rather than serious legislating.
But it would be a mistake to ascribe culpability for the rise in gridlock and hyper-partisanship to these reforms themselves. The 1970s was a time of significant political and cultural change. The civil rights and voting rights laws of the 1960s revived the Republican Party in the South. The shift of the party’s power center to the South and the West created a far more conservative Republican Party, led by a new generation of combative politicians, who pushed an agenda highly charged by cultural issues such as abortion, affirmative action and hyper-patriotism, all fueled by a politicized evangelical Christianity.
The loss of the solid South cost Democrats their presumptive majority status in the House, which they controlled from 1932 to 1994 for all but four years. The bitter battle that ensued for House control would diminish the frequency of cross-party collaboration, because neither side wanted to give the opposition a win. Narrow margins and the constant danger of losing the majority heightened the need for leadership to have a stronger hand in setting legislative priorities and designing floor strategy, diminishing the role of many committees.
The new members who join Congress in January should consider the history of these 1970s reforms as they prepare for their congressional careers. How open should debates be? What is the proper role of committees, rather than the leadership, in developing legislation? What is the value in finding bipartisan legislative solutions as opposed to posturing for the next election? What level of deference is due to senior colleagues? How does Congress reassert itself as a co-equal branch of government, rather than the “broken branch” or “sapless branch” that critics have described it as?
House reform will not end the partisanship now deeply baked not only into Congress but also into the electorate, the media and campaign financing. To break the current quagmire, better informed and more engaged voters ultimately will have to reward those who take chances to find collaborative ways to address the nation’s challenges, instead of regarding such efforts as ideological betrayal.