Opinion | The Watergate Class of ’74 Has Valuable Lessons for Freshman Democrats

Forty-four years ago, in another year of national crisis over a scandal-ridden presidency, an election sent 91 new members to the House. That 1974 wave didn’t shift partisan control, but it did create one of the widest Democratic congressional advantages in a half-century.

It also sent to Washington a new kind of member of Congress: entrepreneurial, independent, deeply engaged with his or (in a very few cases) her constituents and district.

The new Congress of 2019 brings the largest shift in favor of Democrats in the House, at 40 seats, since Watergate. The congressional class of 1974 had a few other things in common with the new members elected in 2018. Just as this one brings 26 millennials to Congress, 1974 brought another generation into American politics, the baby boomers, along with a mandate to rein in what had become an “imperial presidency,” though the president who inspired that concern had already been airlifted from the White House lawn. They came ready not just to legislate but also to use Congress’s oversight powers and reform the institution.

That long-ago wave holds some lessons for the new Congress, particularly the focus on reform. But above all, the newly elected members from both parties should pay attention to the way those 1970s members saw their jobs and their relationship to constituents.

Many of the 1974 class had caught incumbents napping, disconnected from their districts, invisible to voters. The new members worked tirelessly to build a connection to the people, institutions and particular needs of the places they would represent. And after they won, they didn’t stop, investing in constituent service, district offices, caseworkers and a high profile at home.

While older members of Congress in the 1970s followed the rule of the former House speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas to “go along to get along,” many of the newcomers were impatient policy entrepreneurs, developing quick expertise on issues important to them or their districts and pushing Congress to let their ideas onto the agenda by forcing the all-powerful Rules Committee to let them offer amendments. They soon booted a few of the old Southern Democratic committee chairmen. Like many of this week’s new members, they represented suburban districts that could go for either party, and only by developing strong local ties could they hold onto their seats through the waves that elected Ronald Reagan just six years later.

The politicians defeated or superseded by the 1974 wave had lost touch with their constituents because individual members of Congress didn’t matter that much. Power came only with seniority. Rank-and-file members didn’t have much to do and didn’t have to do much.

In 2018, members lost touch for a very different reason: They had grown complacent that they could count on waves of ideology and negative partisanship to carry them through yet another election, the fifth for those first elected in the 2010 wave. They campaigned in broad strokes on national issues such as immigration and the refugee caravan.

Since 2010, they had relied first on the coherent national message of opposition to Barack Obama, then on the small-government ideology of the speaker Paul Ryan and finally on loyalty to Donald Trump, to overwhelm smaller, local allegiances. Even Mr. Trump’s endorsements were boilerplate and national, with the same odd capitalization choices: “strong on Crime & Borders, the 2nd Amendment, & loves our Military & Vets.”

The House Republicans’ experiment with continuously nationalized politics didn’t work out. Politics operates as two interlocking systems, sort of like your left and right brain hemispheres: One system is local, parochial, individualized, pragmatic, while the other involves big national choices and ideas. Successful politicians and parties operate at both levels. Politics of local interests alone can lead to the kind of logrolling bargains — you support my farm subsidy and I’ll support your oil-drilling tax break — that create a functioning Congress but risk losing sight of big national obligations such as addressing climate change. But nationalized politics alone strips away the many little points of common ground that cut across polarizing lines of ideology and help make bargains and compromise possible. When the two systems are both healthy, when politicians are engaged both with big ideas and with their own constituents and their concerns, it brings a kind of fluidity to politics that we’ve seen in more productive periods, such as the 1980s.

If the new members of Congress are able to govern as they campaigned, tirelessly, unafraid of hostile audiences, deeply connected to their districts, focused on improving individual lives, they might eventually pull politics out of the box in which either one party pushes through an entire unpopular agenda or Congress is paralyzed. A newfound focus on the local will also allow new members to bring forward innovations in local government and civic engagement.

But today’s politicians face an obstacle that the class of ’74 could mostly ignore: the enormous cost of campaigns. Republican members fell out of touch with their districts in part because they were increasingly dependent on a few large national donors, operating through super PACs and political nonprofits such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, which get the bulk of their donations from billionaires in Las Vegas, New York, Texas and Florida. Democrats, too, relied on these outside groups and their own billionaires, but 2018 brought an enormous wave of small donors. And while much of that came from fired-up progressives in solid Democratic districts, even in the highest-profile races, a surprising share came from the candidates’ own constituents — for example, more than 54 percent of Beto O’Rourke’s contributions came from Texans. A majority of Democratic challengers also refused corporate PAC money, which often runs through Washington lobbyists.

In 2020 and 2022, these new members will no longer be exciting insurgent challengers but incumbents, probably forced to compromise in ways that some supporters might find disappointing. If the volunteer energy and small-donor support that lifted them to victory in 2018 is missing, their campaigns will look very different. They’ll have to turn to corporate PACs again and, much like their predecessors elected in 2006 and 2008, focus their attention on donors rather than their districts, compromising their promises.

The Democratic caucus has announced plans to make a package of political reforms, including the provisions to encourage small donors long championed by John Sarbanes, Democrat of Maryland, their top priority, bearing the symbolic bill number H.R. 1. In addition to highlighting corruption and the corrosive consequences of the post-Citizens United era, such reforms, if they were ever to pass, could give elected officials a way to stay in better touch with their districts, spending more time with voters and that way keeping the vital, diverse local dimension of politics alive even in a time of deep national polarization.

Mark Schmitt (@mschmitt9) is the director of the political reform program at the research organization New America.

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