Who Blew Up Congress?
They deliberately fought against becoming “institutionalized”—that is, against placing the good of the institution above immediate policy considerations. As Paul Tsongas (D-Mass,) put it, the Class of ’74 sought to “resist integration into the House for the time being,” acting not within the institutional structure but outside of it. Rather than working through the existing institutional structures, such as committees and party caucuses, they formed their own groups and sought to undermine the existing structures. They openly discussed ousting their Speaker, Carl Albert (D-Okla.), for being too accommodating to the other party and for being unwilling to twist the arms of moderates within the caucus. After Speaker Albert retired, he wrote in his autobiography: “I tried to be the leader of this group that refused to be led.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
This is from Joseph Postell, “Congressional Decline: Deja Vu All Over Again,” in our sister on-line publication Law and Liberty, August 20, 2018.
Postell, as the above quote implies, puts a lot of weight on the explanation that the big change in Congress happened with the class of 74. According to Postell, John A. Lawrence, author of the book Postell is reviewing, pulls his punches a little. Nevertheless, Lawrence, who spent a few years as chief of staff to then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, himself does attribute a fair bit of the change to the class of ’74. Otherwise he would probably not have written the book.
I remember the class of 74 well. I knew that the voters would crush the Republicans in post-Watergate payback. I hadn’t expected it to be this extreme. As Postell points out, “93 new members of the House of Representatives (predominantly liberal Democrats) took office in January of 1975.” And we got a lot of legislation, mainly bad, as a result. Moreover, it cemented the positions of Henry Waxman and others whose contributions were net negative.
By the way, I wish we could put an end to the “deja vu all over again” formulation. I sometimes run into young people who, when I say “deja vu,” wonder if I’m not leaving out “all over again.” Many seem never to have heard the simple “deja vu” without the redundant “all over again.” The redundant formulation was funny the first time and maybe even the fifth time. It’s not funny the 1000th time.
The whole review is worth reading. Probably the book too, although the odds are that I won’t get to it.