The Roots of Congressional Partisanship
An interview with historian and former congressional staffer John A. Lawrence
One of my goals in the coming months is to help my readers find a way to step out of the cycle of political despair and look to the longer game that political change invariably is. Today we look at a moment when a younger generation of Democrats tried to change the House of Representatives as an institution.
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John A. Lawrence worked as a congressional staffer for 38 years, the final eight as chief of staff for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. He is the author of The Class of '74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship (Johns Hopkins, 2018): in this conversation, we discussed the book and how Congress works behind the scenes.
Claire Potter: John, you were trained as a professional historian and then went into politics, a career path that, as you noted in this essay, mystified your advisors at Berkeley. How did a Ph.D. in history prepare you for a career that eventually led you to become chief of staff to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi?
John Lawrence: Many of the people working on Capitol Hill in key policy and management roles have legal training or campaign experience. Both are valuable but don’t train people to contextualize current issues into a broader narrative. Training in history provided that skill, particularly research methodology and, perhaps most significantly, writing skills. Politics is often a very presentist business. While attorneys certainly are aware of judicial and legal precedents, historians have the ability to view contemporary debates through a unique prism that helps explain the evolution and nature of complex issues.
CP: OK, now I want to turn that question around. How did your work in politics support writing The Class of `74?
JL: Politics is an intensely personal business. Working in Congress for nearly four decades enabled me to develop close relationships with dozens of members, staff, reporters, and others whose decisions shape public policy and the design of political strategies and campaigns. These connections enabled me to gather material for The Class of ‘74 that, and I have no doubt, would have been impossible for a researcher without my experience.
Many who write about Congress without this personal connection often miss the nuances of why legislators make certain decisions because motivations can be tied to personal relationships and other factors that are difficult to quantify. I think this is why political scientists, in particular, who frequently eschew the narrative in favor of data analysis of voting patterns, often miss much of what really explains how Congress and politics, more broadly, work.
CP: Before 1974, the mood in Congress changed, not just because of Watergate. Reflecting some of the disdain for authority moving politics in the street, younger Representatives were pushing back against how the institution ran. What were the issues?
JL: Certainly, the most significant stimulus to the changing mood in Congress was Vietnam. The war was important on many levels: the reassertion of congressional prerogatives against the Imperial Presidency that developed and promoted the war; the rise in the use of oversight to challenge official accounts of the status of the war; the resistance to the draft; the emergence of investigative, aggressive journalism that often worked collaboratively with dissidents in Congress.
There were other issues that raised passionate concerns among newer members of Congress, too: civil rights, women’s equality, the environment, energy policy, and consumer protection among them. Within Congress, reformers also resented the structure of the institution. Power was lodged primarily in autonomous chairmen who did not need to be responsive to the views of the broader membership because their chairmanships were virtually guaranteed by the seniority system—instituted after the 1910 revolt against Speaker Joseph Cannon.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it became evident to the younger reformers that it was essential to challenge the awarding of chairmanships based on duration of service alone. If chairmen did not have to be responsive to the broader membership, then the issues that the younger, more progressive cohort wished to elevate could be (and often were) suppressed by more conservative chairs.
CP: In 1974, in a far bigger sweep than was anticipated, 76 Democrats were elected to the House, 49 replacing Republican incumbents. What set the stage for this colossal shift in power?
JL: Longstanding disapproval of the Vietnam policy played a significant role in encouraging reformers to run and in their winning. So, too, did the recent oil embargo, which had elevated public anxiety and accentuated the need for a national energy policy. By 1974, Watergate, with all of its turmoil within the Executive Branch and Congress, also helped create a demand for reform of what was viewed as a corrupt White House. Certainly, the revelation of the Nixon tapes and Nixon’s subsequent resignation complicated the re-election of many loyalists who had stood by the President as the crisis deepened.
President Ford’s pardon of Nixon, coming just weeks before the election, further cemented the idea that corruption was rampant in Washington and a housecleaning was in order. Lastly, the continuing poor economy and the ineffectual response of the Ford Administration – the Whip Inflation Now campaign created a toxic political environment for many Republicans: corruption, recession, energy disruptions, and price hikes. The climate was perfect for new, optimistic, earnest young candidates like the Class of ’74.
CP: Sounds like a perfect political storm. Vietnam was huge, as was inflation that would soon push the American economy into a real crisis. What were the other concerns these “Watergate babies” had in common, and what policy problems divided them?
JL: The issues around which the Class of ’74 were most united were the internal reforms that disseminated power in Congress. The changes they made, effectuated in December 1974, gave heightened power to the Caucus and strengthened the role of subcommittees on which freshmen and other reformers enjoyed disproportionate strength, enabling them to raise and promote issues. In addition, these changes benefitted all new members by increasing their participatory rights, regardless of their ideology or view on specific issues.
When the freshmen were faced with policy questions where their constituents had particular interests or where constituents had strongly held views—issues like abortion, school busing, labor law, and energy—the unanimity within the freshmen caucus proved somewhat more difficult to maintain. However, it should be noted that overall, the freshmen voted with significant consistency and were among the most loyal to the Democratic leadership’s positions.
CP: 1974 was also, in some ways, the twilight of Republican liberalism. You point out in the book that while many Republicans shared the majority’s “goal of democratizing House procedures,” their “objectives were quite different.” Can you describe these differences?
JL: Newer members in both parties stood to gain from changes that extended greater participation to those with less seniority. And Republicans, in general, were supportive of reforms that benefitted the minority (for example, the ability to hire more staff on committees) and members in general. Whereas Democratic freshmen used expanded rights to raise issues and offer amendments in committee and on the floor to promote more progressive ideas, Republicans increasingly became skilled at exploiting the more open rules to force less secure Democrats into casting controversial votes that could render them vulnerable to political challenge.
Similarly, Republicans successfully learned to utilize the coverage of committee and floor proceedings by television cameras to send supporters messages and raise issues that favored GOP policies. As a result, when Democrats rescinded some reforms that constrained the ability of Republicans to exploit divisive issues, strategists like Newt Gingrich could make a case against the majority for being heavy-handed and unfair, which they cited as justifying a change in control of the House.
CP: By the late 1970s, the political terrain in the United States was quite different: what changed in the 1970s, and how did that set the stage for the polarized politics of the 21st century?
JL: The signs of a more polarized politics were developing quite markedly in the mid-to-late 1970s, although many date the emergence of a revitalized conservatism to the 1980 and the Reagan Era. Many of the fundamental changes were driven by demographics, especially the movement of many conservative white voters from the Northeast and Midwest to the border and southern states in search of jobs. Reaction to the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam and student protests, and the whole litany of “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” cultural divisions all helped fuel a revitalization of the long-dormant Republican Party in the South, especially after the George Wallace campaign of 1968 convinced many conservatives to bolt from the Democratic Party.
The renewal of southern Republicans was also aided by highly politicized evangelicism, and cultural issues proved crucial to the success of this strategy. Changes in federal laws made it easier for a significant expansion of independent campaign fundraising and grassroots mobilization based around single issues rather than being subject to party leaders. The election of many conservative Republicans in the South in the late 1970s and early 1980s deprived Democrats of the security of an invincible majority. The heightened competition for majority control drove money, activism, and legislative strategy into increasingly partisan directions.
While the reforms of 1974 did not cause partisanship, the availability to raise and promote divisive issues that were permitted by a more open and participatory Congress inadvertently provided Republicans with greater opportunities than they would have enjoyed under a more closed system.
CP: What advice would the Class of 1974 have for today’s Democratic party?
JL: If you asked those in the Class who were most successful during their careers, I think they would likely advise newcomers to learn how the institution works, develop close relations with colleagues, and find areas of policy on which they would like to focus (rather than be a gadfly with something to say on every issue.) Newcomers will want to pay attention to building and strengthening your networks with constituents, without whom you have no power to accomplish your goals.
As I say in my book, “before you save the world, you have to save your seat.” I also think that at least some would advise freshmen not to spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders trying to avoid controversial positions that some voters might dislike. Many in the Class of ’74 were surprised to have won in the first place, and they were determined to make their impact as swiftly and decisively as possible because they did not expect to remain in Congress very long.
So, I think the message would be, “Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out if an issue or a vote plays positively or negatively. Instead, do what you think is right, explain your position frankly to your constituents, and you’ll be surprised how often they support your decision.”
I’m not the only writer in this house:
At Pangyrus, Nancy Barnes, also my spouse, writes about how she learned to be curious about the world and embrace the unexpected: from her father. “Joe showed me how to touch the world, and smell it and study it and take delight in it – simply by venturing out from the corner where I lived,” Barnes writes. “He held strong views about how best to approach travel: do things you’re not supposed to do, stay open to surprises, be curious about how a trip is affecting you. Most of all, he taught me that whatever happens, write the story.” (July 5, 2022)
Brittney Griner’s Russian show trial continues while the sports pages rave about the many male players shifting jobs around the country for fabulous sums of money. It’s gross, and Griner—an African American and lesbian imprisoned by a white supremacist and homophobic regime—has undergone over 100 days of confinement and mental torture. As Dave Zirin of The Nation writes, “It is understandable, as we are living in a country with its own advancing authoritarianism, why Brittney Griner might not be at the top of anyone’s concerns. But as long as she remains in jail, and as long as our own sports world fails to love her nearly enough, we need to make the space to demand her freedom.” (July 5, 2022)
Appeals to the “working class” are pretty squishy, says Monica Potts at FiveThirtyEight.com. Why? In the first place, that phrase is coded “white,” but in addition, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are addressing anything as specific as a class. “What’s clear from the two parties’ approaches is that Republicans mainly think of the working class as a cultural and racial identity, and not an economic one,” Potts writes. “Democrats, to be sure, are also leaning into a cultural appeal when they pitch themselves to working-class voters — primarily a populist appeal bent on uniting the working class against corporate greed — but it is still rooted more in economics than any national culture-war issue.” (July 6, 2022)
Teaching in a public college or university in Florida is becoming difficult for many and impossible for some. As Susan Svrluga and Lori Rozsa report at The Washington Post, new state legislation pushed by Governor Ron DeathSantis has prompted a lawsuit by University of Central Florida associate professor Robert Cassanello, a scholar of African American history, who argues that the legislation—which outlaws the teaching of race—makes it impossible for him to do his job. The state is also changing its accreditation process, which may impede Florida students from getting federal financial aid. And what happens in Florida spreads like a political virus. “In other parts of the country, some legislators and governors are pushing for more autonomy over hiring and firing state employees,” Svrluga and Rozsa write. “Tenure is coming under increasing criticism. And a number of states have passed bills to prevent colleges from teaching `divisive concepts.’” (July 1, 2022)
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