Rebels of '94 and 'Watergate Babies' Similar In Class Size, Sense of
By Ronald D. Elving, CQ Staff Writer
Twenty years before the GOP's "Contract With America" wave of 1994, the House absorbed the shock of another freshman class that was just as big and as dominated by one party.
The members of the Class of 1974 were young, relatively new to public office and remarkably certain they could remake Washington in their own image. They viewed Congress as ossified, beholden to powerful interests, unresponsive to the people and ripe for the taking.
The Class of 1974 had 75 Democrats to just 17 Republicans (the "Contract" Class of 1994 would have 73 Republicans and just 13 Democrats). This huge influx of Democrats was known as the "Watergate babies." The label derived from the scandal that, less than three months earlier, had caused President Richard M. Nixon to resign under threat of impeachment.
So strong was the tide running that fall -- especially after Nixon was pardoned by successor President Gerald R. Ford -- that Democrats were elected in districts all over the Northeast, the Midwest and the West that had voted Republican for generations.
The two most senior members of the then-minority Republicans were defeated. In Massachusetts, Paul E. Tsongas became the first Democrat elected to the House from his district in the 20th century. The bookish Andrew Maguire in New Jersey and the street-savvy organizer Toby Moffett in Connecticut captured suburban Republican districts.
In the West, Timothy E. Wirth won the Colorado district based in Boulder, Les AuCoin became the first Democrat from Oregon's northwest corner since the 1800s and California elected a crop of young legislators that included George Miller, Henry A. Waxman and Norman Y. Mineta.
The new victors were a Kiddie Corps, half of them under 40. Tom Downey of New York, just 25, was the youngest member of Congress since the early 1800s. "We were young, we looked weird. I can't even believe we got elected," Moffett would say two decades later.
This new generation of Democrats offered a new image for their party. Far more than their senior colleagues in the House, they understood the social trends and beliefs that had typified the previous 10 years. Most of them supported the Supreme Court decisions that had legalized abortion and outlawed prayer in schools. Most of them backed busing to achieve racial balance in the schools.
Few were true populists. They were college-educated and professionally credentialed. "We were the children of Vietnam, not World War II," said Wirth. "We were products of television, not of print. We were products of computer politics, not courthouse politics. And we were reflections of JFK as president, not FDR."
They were more likely to have been part of the anti-war movement than of the organized labor movement, and few were creatures of the party establishment. One new member, from the suburbs of Philadelphia, was a 31-year-old Methodist minister named Bob Edgar who had begun his campaign by looking up "Democratic" in the phone book to find the local headquarters.
Opposites With Much in Common
The early phases of the two classes have much history in common. Both came to Washington full of rhetorical energy about the changes to be wrought in the social and economic structure of the nation. Both enjoyed the strength in numbers and the sense of shared purpose that would enable them to make a difference immediately on Capitol Hill -- particularly on issues of internal reform.
The Watergate generations's most visible success came almost immediately after their election. Unlike the 1994 class, the Watergate babies did not force a change of majority control in Congress: Democrats had been in charge in the House for two decades at the time. But the fresh faces did force a change within the ruling majority, which had long featured a power structure built on seniority and dominated by Southern "Dixiecrats."
All but a handful of the freshmen lent their votes to the pre-existing reform movement within the House Democratic Caucus. This forced the committee barons to kowtow, seeking rank-and-file votes to stay in power. This irked F. Edward Hebert of Louisiana, the Armed Services Committee chairman. When he addressed the gathering of freshmen, he called them "boys and girls." He later lost his chair by 19 votes, with all but a few freshman votes going against him. In all, only three sitting committee chairmen were deposed, but others got the message.
"The [Watergate babies] set an example for other classes by striking out as individuals and developing their own power centers," said former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California (1979-1989). "They became independent and they didn't become beholden to the leadership."
Speaker Carl Albert, an old-style Democrat from Bug Tussle, Okla., had little in common with his new ranks of back benchers. The freshmen, in turn, would be so frustrated with his leadership that one firebrand among them, Bob Carr of Michigan, took to the floor in June of 1975 to call on the Speaker to resign.
By then, however, the class had lost much of its early momentum and begun to adjust to the customs and priorities of the House. Although many of Carr's class may have shared his rage, not one rose to support him on the floor.
"The system has swallowed us up," Mineta said later.
Before their first term was over, a bitter leadership race further divided the class, dissipating much of what was left of their solidarity. The Watergate babies split badly over the competing ambitions of their mentors, leading reformer Richard Bolling of Missouri and passionate liberal crusader Phil Burton of California, both of whom were running for majority leader (neither won; the job went instead to Jim Wright of Texas).
The Watergate babies continued to hold class meetings, but their original sense of mission and cohesion drained away. They were divided by region, by issues and by their competing ambitions. "Anyone who thought we would be doing anything together beyond the first month was mistaken," said class member David Evans of Indiana.
All but two class members who ran for re-election won in 1976, but thereafter the game got rougher in a hurry. Reaction to Watergate had run its course and Democratic President Jimmy Carter was generating a reaction of his own: The GOP gained a net of nearly 50 seats in the elections of 1978 and 1980.
The era of President Ronald Reagan pushed the Watergate babies to the margins of national policymaking. After years of considering themselves the cutting edge of Congress, they found themselves fighting rear-guard battles instead.
By the 1990s, the Watergate babies had attenuated as a presence in the House. One ambitious subgroup had moved on to the Senate (Tsongas, Wirth, Max Baucus of Montana, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Paul Simon of Illinois). Just as many, however, had tried for the the Senate and lost.
Others had fallen by the wayside in ignominious fashion. Fred Richmond of New York resigned his seat as part of a plea bargain in 1982 after being charged with tax evasion and marijuana possession. John W. Jenrette Jr. of South Carolina was enmeshed in the Abscam corruption scandal, resigned in 1980 and subsequently went to prison. Carroll Hubbard Jr. of Kentucky, a onetime president of the class, would lose his primary in 1992 and later go to prison for misuse of office staff, violation of federal election laws and obstruction of justice.
In the 103rd Congress, the inauguration of President Clinton (himself an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in the Watergate year of 1974) gave Democrats a chance to legislate again. But by then the number of Watergate babies had dwindled to 14.
For some, the 103rd Congress was a career peak. Miller was chairman of the Natural Resources (now Resources) Committee, Mineta was chairman of the Public Works (now Transportation and Infrastructure) Committee and John J. LaFalce of New York was chairman of the Small Business Committee. Waxman and Philip R. Sharp of Indiana had significant subcommittee gavels on the Energy and Commerce (now Commerce) Committee.
But the elections of 1994 and 1996 punished this remnant, and in the current Congress, only five Watergate babies remain: LaFalce, Miller, Waxman, James L. Oberstar of Minnesota and W.G. "Bill" Hefner, who has said he will retire after this session.
A decade after the Watergate babies' first election, class member Mark W. Hannaford of California (1975-79) summed up the class history by saying "Maybe we were a little oversold from the beginning."
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