On the morning of August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon signed a statement that no American leader had ever before written: “I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States.” Nixon then walked out to the South Lawn of the White House, boarded the presidential helicopter, and flashed an incongruous victory sign with both hands, bidding farewell to his staff and to the American people. 

As his helicopter floated into the sky, Nixon seemed to be fleeing a United States that had hit rock bottom. The post–World War II economic boom had run its course, and unemployment was rising. Arab oil exporters had enacted a humiliating embargo, and the price of oil had nearly quadrupled. Although the last U.S. troops had left Vietnam, the unpopular war had eroded Americans’ trust in government. So had scandal in the White House. In the fall of 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned over bribery charges. In the spring of 1974, nearly two years after Nixon’s operatives had been caught breaking into the Watergate office building, the House Judiciary Committee had held the first impeachment hearings of a sitting president in over a century. A month after Nixon’s resignation, President Gerald Ford would pardon his disgraced predecessor, fueling speculation of some sort of quid pro quo. From a high of 77 percent in 1964, Americans’ confidence in their elected leaders, as measured by the Pew Research Center, plunged to 36 percent by the end of 1974. 

Yet from these pessimistic depths emerged a powerful wave of government reform. The movement had been gaining steam during Nixon’s presidency, but it took off with the midterm elections in November 1974, which put in power 92 new members of the House of Representatives, 80 percent of them Democrats. The class of 1974 was a diverse group. It included veteran politicians, businesspeople, a consumer activist, a housepainter, a steelworker, and a urologist. But what unified this group was its members’ commitment to restoring public faith in government. The “Watergate babies,” as they were derisively called, had campaigned on a promise to shake up Capitol Hill and had little investment in its traditional protocols. When they were sworn in, in 1975, they joined forces with veteran advocates of reform who had long wanted to modernize the way Congress worked. Only once they had succeeded at that, the veterans lectured them, could they achieve the policy goals they cared about: a complete extrication from Vietnam, civil rights for African Americans, expanded opportunities for women, energy independence, and environmental preservation.

Over the course of the 1970s, these youthful idealists ushered in a series of far-reaching reforms. They democratized the operation of the House and the Senate to loosen senior members’ hold over the young bucks. They expanded transparency and accountability to counter unethical behavior. And they tried to make Congress a coequal branch of government to rein in a powerful executive. These reforms marked an important step forward in terms of democratic representation, ethics, and openness. But in many respects, they also backfired, leaving Congress more vulnerable to partisanship and special interests. For would-be reformers hoping to fight corruption and executive overreach today, the lesson is clear: proceed with caution.

SENIORITIS

By the early 1970s, Congress was in thrall to autocratic committee chairs. These members of Congress—mostly southern Democrats who held safe seats—used their power to restrict the role of junior members, limiting their ability to question witnesses or introduce amendments. “I hate and detest junior members interrupting a senior member asking a question,” Harold Cooley, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the House Agriculture Committee, had once announced. The senior members brooked little ideological diversity. F. Edward Hébert, a Democrat from Louisiana who headed the House Armed Services Committee, resented that two younger, antiwar Democrats had joined the committee against his will. At its first meeting of 1973, Hébert slighted the two by making them share a single chair at the dais.

The members who took their seats in 1975 immediately sought to overturn the seniority system, which virtually guaranteed that whoever in the majority party had served longest on a committee would be its chair. Even representatives who voted against their own party 80 percent of the time would remain at the head of committees, a position that gave them enormous power to shape hearings and legislation. For the first time, the freshmen demanded that prospective chairs appear before them to earn their votes. It was an unprecedented act of effrontery, and the chairs initially refused to comply. “That’s OK,” replied the Iowa Democrat Berkley Bedell; “we will just all vote against you.” When the old guard begrudgingly showed up, recognizing that the rules of the game had changed, the reformers dethroned three of them—including Hébert, who had caustically addressed them as “boys and girls.” Before the next election, a half dozen more chairs, unwilling to subject themselves to the discipline of the caucus, chose to retire. So did the Speaker of the House, Carl Albert, Democrat of Oklahoma, who had been heavily criticized for opposing reform.

The freshmen also demanded limits on the number of positions senior members could hold on committees and subcommittees. Flocking to fill the resulting vacancies, the younger members ended up dominating subcommittees dealing with progressive issues, such as the environment, energy, and civil rights. They succeeded in changing the rules so that subcommittees could hire their own staffs and hold hearings without the approval of the chair.

For would-be reformers hoping to fight corruption today, the lesson is clear: proceed with caution.

This devolution of power made it easier for younger members to advance once suppressed goals. In January 1975, for example, Ford requested $300 million in additional military aid for the South Vietnamese government. The Democratic Party’s old guard was inclined to accede to the request, but the antiwar members forced the party’s caucus to hold a vote, and the aid was denied. Later that year, the freshmen passed a sweeping energy conservation bill that had been resisted by much of their leadership, especially those from states that produced oil or cars. They also scored notable victories on regulating toxic substances and educating children with special needs.

But much of the unity the freshmen displayed during the battles for structural reform crumbled once they faced contentious issues that divided the rest of the party and the nation. On campaign finance, health care, labor rights, and the environment, the interests of local constituencies prevented the Democrats from voting as consistently as they had on reform. Meanwhile, Ford’s prodigious use of the veto left many reformers frustrated that even with healthy majorities, they could not find the two-thirds needed to override presidential resistance. 

Change came fitfully in the more tradition-bound Senate, but the body did make a key reform to the filibuster, the time-honored practice by which a small group of senators could bring business to a halt by extending debate for hours and hours. During the 1950s and 1960s, the filibuster had become a favored tactic of southern segregationists determined to block popular civil rights legislation. So in 1970, the Senate modified its rules to allow other business to be conducted while filibusters took place, and in 1975, it lowered the number of votes required to end a filibuster from 67 to 60.

Like the House reforms, these changes were designed to curb the ability of a small group of ideologically rigid members from overriding the majority’s will. But the reform backfired. Although the number of filibusters dropped briefly, in an increasingly partisan Senate, it soon began a sustained rise and eventually exploded. Because Senate business could continue while a senator spoke, it became far less costly to launch a filibuster. 

OPEN SESAME

The Nixon presidency was defined by a lack of transparency, but the problem of secrecy went beyond the White House and predated Nixon. Hearings and markups of legislation were usually conducted without public oversight; votes often took place behind closed doors. Advocates of reform argued that special interests and private deals flourished in secret, making it hard for the public to hold politicians accountable and leading to policy that served the few rather than the many. The consumer activist Ralph Nader, for example, contended that it was backroom deals and secret campaign contributions that left Americans with unhealthy air and unsafe cars.

Beginning in the late 1960s, a series of reforms pulled back the curtain on the legislative process. Committees were required to produce written reports explaining legislation, and votes in committee and on the floor were formally recorded. Traditionalists, who feared that transparency would undermine delicate dealmaking, resisted these efforts. In 1970, when the newcomer Dave Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin, tried to open up the deliberations of the House Appropriations Committee, John Rooney, a 27-year veteran of the House from New York, growled, “Sit down, you smart-ass young punk.” But the reformers had been emboldened. Obey replied, “Kiss my fanny, you senile old goat.” 

Such efforts gained steam with the publication of exposés concerning Vietnam and Watergate, which showed the lengths to which officials would go to hide misconduct. And the reforms succeeded in allowing Americans to see their legislators at work. That had been a rarity in previous years, when only exceptional events were nationally broadcast, such as the 1954 hearings held to investigate the inquest into the U.S. Army led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Openness allowed individual citizens to track their representatives’ votes, preventing legislators from being able to hide their true views. 

Impeachment hearings against Nixon in Washington, D.C., May 1974
Impeachment hearings against Nixon in Washington, D.C., May 1974
Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

But the rise in transparency also had a dark side. Gone were the closed-door negotiations and secret voting that had allowed legislators to hammer out difficult compromises. To pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act over the opposition of southern conservative Democrats, for example, Republicans had cast key votes to allow the bill to advance—votes that, had they been public, could have cost those legislators their seats. With so much of the legislative process taking place in the open, legislators grew far more wary of taking courageous stands. 

The introduction of television cameras into the House in 1979 (and later into the Senate) led to even more dramatic changes. Although expanded coverage enabled millions of Americans to keep a closer watch over their elected representatives, the quality of debate on the floor deteriorated. Loquacious members who represented the fringes of their party played for the cameras rather than engaging in substantive debate. Legislators introduced hundreds of amendments not to improve bills but to force vulnerable members to choose between their constituents and their party. Gridlock grew.

Other reform efforts met with mixed results, too. In 1974, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act to limit spending, but two years later, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the law. In 1978, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which requires public officials to disclose their income and assets and restricts lobbying after leaving office, so as to close the revolving door between the government and K Street. But all too often, violations have been met with slaps on the wrist. And given the widespread ethical lapses of the Trump administration, it does not appear to be working as a deterrent.

THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY

The 1970s reformers had another goal: to regain power lost during World War II and the Cold War to what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called “the imperial presidency.” Many on Capitol Hill and among the public were starting to believe that the executive branch had amassed too much power, with too little accountability. Journalists such as Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein shocked the country with their dogged investigations, informing the public of a host of abuses. The U.S. military was covertly bombing Cambodia and Laos and covering up atrocities in Vietnam, the FBI was harassing and spying on political opponents, and the CIA was planning assassination plots around the world. Through the exhaustive investigations of The Washington Post, Americans learned that the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex was not a “third-rate burglary,” as a White House spokesperson insisted, but part of a sordid criminal conspiracy involving Nixon’s reelection committee, the Department of Justice, and the White House. 

As the Watergate crisis unfolded, Nixon grew more vulnerable, giving Congress the opportunity it needed to flex its muscles and reclaim its status as a coequal branch of government. In 1973, over Nixon’s veto, it passed the War Powers Resolution, which requires the president to obtain congressional authorization to use military force for more than 60 days. The next year, it passed the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which clawed back budgetary power from the White House. Most dramatic, of course, Congress held systematic hearings that, when combined with the Supreme Court’s rulings against the president, forced Nixon to resign in the face of certain impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate.

Congress also greatly expanded its oversight of the executive branch. The reformers passed new rules requiring each committee to create a new oversight subcommittee to probe the administration. Harsh inquisitors regularly summoned officials to Capitol Hill; the California Democrat John Moss, for example, held their feet to the fire on such issues as domestic surveillance and corrupt defense contracts. Legislators sent aggressive letters to cabinet members and bureaucrats from both parties, demanding exhaustive responses to questions about their agencies’ activities. 

One of Congress’s most powerful oversight initiatives was its inquest into abuses by the CIA and other agencies. In 1975, the Senate voted 82 to four to create a select committee for that purpose, chaired by Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho. Armed with a staff of 150 investigators, the Church Committee, as it was known, gained insight into the government’s far-reaching clandestine activities, which had never before been disclosed. Its 126 hearings uncovered “intelligence excesses,” in the words of its earthshaking report, that had “undermined the constitutional rights of citizens.” The CIA, it revealed, had plotted to kill the leaders of Congo and Cuba. The National Security Agency had put thousands of U.S. citizens on a watch list. And the FBI had spied on civil rights and antiwar protesters in the United States. The Church Committee’s work led to the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which limits the federal government’s power to intercept communications.

Like other post-Watergate congressional reforms, oversight fell prey to the heightened partisanship that characterized the ensuing decades. As voters realigned into two ideologically distinct parties, oversight grew increasingly selective and weaponized. The majority party in Congress tended to wield it far more aggressively when the White House was occupied by a president of the opposite party and less so during periods of unified government. 

THE LEGACY OF REFORM

The post-Watergate reforms dramatically altered Congress’s internal operations and relationship to the executive branch. Gone was the era in which Congress’s leadership was determined solely by seniority; its agenda, set by a small clique. Gone, too, was a secretive legislative process that concealed corruption and deception. In its place was a Congress that had disseminated power throughout its ranks, that demanded greater accountability of its own leaders as well as of the executive branch, and that was far more willing to assert its constitutional status as a coequal branch of government. 

Yet in many ways, the reforms fell short of their goals. Part of the problem was that they inadvertently helped facilitate the rise of a more combative environment. It wasn’t just liberal Democrats who benefited from the devolution of power within Congress; over the course of the 1970s, so did the conservative Republicans who emerged from the changing South, the suburbs, and the Southwest. As each party grew apart from the other, the number of persuadable members in the center dwindled. In the 93rd Congress, whose term began in 1973, 240 out of 435 House members and 29 of 100 senators were moderates based on their votes, by the Pew Research Center’s count. Twenty years later, those numbers had shrunk to nine members of the House and three senators. By 2011, they had reached zero. In that environment, it’s hard to get much done. 

Nor did the reforms succeed in reining in executive power. Despite the War Powers Resolution and greater oversight, presidents of both parties have consistently defied congressional demands for disclosure and accountability. Occasionally, the White House will endure reprimands, but rarely will it bend to the will of slighted legislators. In 2011, when President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes in Libya, he perfunctorily consulted the congressional leadership but made it clear that the decision was his alone. 

Gone was a secretive legislative process that concealed corruption and deception.

By its nature, Congress rarely moves as quickly or decisively as a determined president. It was designed to be an inefficient body, riven by party, ideology, regionalism, ambition, and special interests—unable “to be fast on its 1,070 feet,” as the political scientist Thomas Cronin once remarked. Unlike presidents, legislators are compelled to collaborate to produce consensus legislation. Reform can improve its efficiency and productivity, but ultimately, Congress faces inevitable challenges to performing as firmly or expeditiously as reformers and much of the public would prefer. 

That is as true today as it was in 1974. Now, as then, an unpopular Republican president is leaving office, and Democrats have gained in the Senate and held the House. Now, as then, after bitter oversight struggles and an impeachment process, the Democratic Party faces the temptation to enact sweeping reforms. And now, as then, a group of younger, more liberal, and more aggressive members feels pressure to rewrite Congress’s norms and rules. If the Democrats gain a majority in the Senate, there may be a movement to extend the changes to the filibuster made in 2013 and 2017—when it was eliminated for judicial nominations—and end the tactic for all legislation. 

But today’s prospective reformers should consider the experiences of their predecessors. Reforms often not only fail to achieve their goals but also produce unintended consequences. They can complicate efforts to improve efficiency in the House and the Senate. For example, some critics of the status quo have called for a return to “regular order,” meaning that instead of being designed by the party leadership in consultation with members behind closed doors, legislation would be produced through hearings and markup sessions in committees, and amendments would be introduced openly on the floor. But in the context of a hyperpartisan House, that change, by exposing carefully crafted legislation to politicized amendments, could turn the floor into a partisan free-fire zone and complicate any attempt to pass significant legislation. No institution should be exempt from change, but reforms need to be undertaken with a clear sense of history and the nature of the institution—something that zealous newcomers sometimes lack. 

In fact, the reforms most needed today are likely ones that lie outside Congress’s control: the easing of a charged, combative style of politics that prevents compromise and the reduction of an influx of money, media, special interests, and aggressive grassroots activists that rewards division. Solving those much bigger problems would require a U-turn in American political culture: away from the type of politics that punishes those who dare to reach across the aisle and toward the kind of collaborative politics that most Americans profess to want.

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