For millions of Americans, from political analysts to readers confronting their morning newspapers, the dysfunction of today’s Congress is a disturbing mystery. The majority, which controls the agenda and schedule of the House, seems riven with division; the leadership seems bereft of methods or muscle for enforcing discipline; distrust pervades relations with Senate colleagues, and the relationship with the White House, controlled by the majority’s own party, is unpredictable and volatile. With the Republicans locked in seemingly intractable conflict with a minority focused on regaining power, the Congress has rarely been less productive or less well-regarded in the public’s perception.
It wasn’t always like this; in some ways, it was worse. For generations, the House was a secretive, hierarchical, tradition-bound institution that gave little regard or influence to newcomers. Power was concentrated so assiduously in the handful of committee chairs that even the elected leadership hesitated to challenge the old men with the gavel. From the dour Woodrow Wilson through the thundering Lyndon Johnson, the House lumbered along in its top-heavy, anachronistic style, incapable of competing with an executive branch that was increasingly agile and expansive, well-suited to modern mass communications, and aggregating power by virtue of its ability to act decisively.
That model changed in the 1970s, along with many core aspects of American society. Against the fallout of the Watergate scandal and the executive branch abuses of the Nixon administration, the November 1974 congressional election resulted in one of the largest infusions of new faces into the House of Representatives in political history. On January 3, 1975, 93 new men and women became members of the Congress, 76 of them Democrats (49 occupying seats previously held by Republicans).
This was not just another group of the post–World War II House liberal reformers who had struggled against a stultifying institutional structure. Members of the Class of ’74 believed that if they were able to make the institution and its procedures more transparent to the public, both the House and American politics overall would change forever.