Commentary: Lessons From The Class Of '74

Riding a wave of revulsion against politics as usual, a huge crop of newcomers sweeps into Congress. Promising to overthrow the old order, they demand broad changes to make Washington more accountable to ordinary citizens. The Republican freshmen Class of 1994? Nope, the Democratic Class of '74--better known as the Watergate Babies.

Despite their best intentions, the 75 House Democrats who rode the Nixon Administration scandals into office two decades ago failed to fundamentally change politics. Unable to work together as a unit and seduced by money and Washington perks, the Watergate Babies eventually were co-opted by the system. The current crop of freshmen risks failure as well. Their fatal flaws: hubris and an unwillingness to make the compromises governing requires.

While the two historic classes share huge size and reformist zeal, there are stark differences. The Class of '74 cut its political teeth as opponents of the Vietnam War, yet its members were pragmatists rather than ideologues. They largely rejected the sort of liberalism that resulted in their party's overwhelming defeat in the 1972 Presidential elections. They wanted to make government work better, not get bigger. And they tried to break the hold of unions and other special interests on the Democratic Party.

RESTORATION. By contrast, many of today's Republican freshmen want to defenestrate the federal government, not improve it. And rather than distancing themselves from special interests, such as the religious right, they have embraced them.

The biggest difference may be in the way each class tried to reform Congress. Both vowed to overthrow the cozy Capitol Hill power structure. But in the name of democratization, the Class of '74 created anarchy, while the Class of '94 has accepted the iron rule of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Although the Republican frosh occasionally buck the Speaker, they've voted with him a staggering 94%--and 99% of the time during the first 100 days.

The Watergate Babies stripped power from the party kingpins. They dumped committee chairmen and changed rules so the party caucus, rather than the leadership, made committee assignments. Bucking the old bulls was easy because the Class of '74 owed little to the Democratic bosses. "We didn't expect a lot of the Watergate class to win," remembers Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.). "We just put them on the ballot to have a Democratic name there."

Gingrich, on the other hand, consciously went about constructing his majority by electing rookies, using the Contract With America and well-placed campaign funds as tools. While grateful GOP freshmen talk about a revolution, they actually have assented to a Restoration--a return to the days of all-powerful Speakers. Says University of Maryland government professor James Gimpel: "They've been willing to invest in Gingrich's moral authority to recentralize power in the House."

Today's freshmen have so far been happy to give the Speaker enormous power because they believe he can lead their push for radical change. That's far afield from the '74 reformers who hobbled their Speaker. As a result, they created a power vacuum that would be filled over the next decade by strong committee chairmen such as Ways & Means boss Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).

CHECK BOUNCERS. Some of the Watergate Babies eventually gained powerful positions. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.), for instance, went to the Senate and eventually ran for President. Indeed, it was remarkable how easily much of this class adapted to Washington. They took generous campaign money. They bounced checks at the House bank. They became part of a system they had vowed to change when their hair was longer and their commitment deeper.

The Watergate Babies have left lessons for the GOP gang of Contract-quoting short hairs. The first: Beware of the seductive power of special-interest money. Already, new Republicans have collected more dough from special interests than any class in history. The second: Even the best intentions can backfire. The Class of '74's legacy was a campaign-finance reform law that created the very political action committees that many see as the root of today's ills. The Class of '94 is in danger of leaving a disappointing legacy of its own: It stood for principle but accomplished little.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.