Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Learn from the 'Watergate Babies'

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
February 10, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994. President Richard Nixon was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, when he became the first president to resign from office. He died at 81 in 1994.
HIDE CAPTION
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
Nixon through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: The last few reformers elected after Watergate are retiring
  • Their key message: Cleaning up government should precede policy changes
  • Zelizer says Barack Obama promised change in 2008 but largely abandoned the effort
  • He says U.S. needs to rein in lobbyists, regulate campaign donations, remove secrecy

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Washington needs to be reformed. With polls consistently showing that Americans distrust their government and an abundance of evidence that our political system is not working well (some polls have shown that legislators are less trusted than car salesmen), the urgency of improving the rules and procedures through which our politicians govern is essential.

It is a good time to look back at the Watergate Babies, most of whom have left town. Over the past month, two of the giants from this class, California Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman have announced that they will retire. Almost the entire class is gone, other than Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Minnesota Democrat Rick Nolan.

The class of Democrats elected in 1974 in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon's resignation amidst the Watergate scandal believed that to achieve better policies, legislators needed to clean up the political process.

Nixon had been brought down from power as a result of evidence that he had covered up the investigation into whether White House officials had been involved in a burglary at the Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate complex.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The new Democrats were younger than their predecessors, many had been elected in Republican districts where voters were furious with Nixon and many wanted to move beyond the traditional policy orthodoxies that had defined Democrats since the New Deal.

Unlike so many politicians who keep their eyes focused almost exclusively on what bills they want to pass and accept the political system for what it is, the 75 Watergate Babies insisted government reform needed to be at the top of the agenda. They didn't just complain about government, they took steps to make it work better. This was the only way to correct what had gone wrong in the early 1970s. "There is a mood of reform in the air on Capitol Hill," noted Common Cause when the freshmen arrived.

When the freshman class arrived to Washington, they refused to go along with the status quo. One of their biggest steps was to demand that several senior committee chairmen, who were used to having everyone defer to them, answer questions about whether they would be responsive to the interests of the Democratic Caucus.

When a few of them refused, the freshmen led the caucus in stripping them of their power. Edward Hebert, the crusty old chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, insulted the freshmen by calling them "boys and girls" in front of reporters. In doing so, he sealed his fate. One legislator said that the chairman had "underestimated the intelligence of the people he was talking to. We may be new kids on the block, but we're not stupid."

The Washington Post concluded, "a revolution has occurred. The seniority system as the rigid, inviolable operating framework of the House has been destroyed."

The Watergate Babies also led the way in instituting changes in rules and regulations. Working in an alliance with liberal Democrats who had been in office since the late 1950s, their sunshine laws opened up much more of the legislative process to public and media scrutiny.

They instituted ethics reforms that created new standards of accountability for politicians in the executive and legislative branches.

They ensured that the new campaign finance laws required disclosure of information about who gave money to whom, and that the Federal Election Commission was capable of monitoring the laws. They reformed the filibuster rules to lower the number of senators required to end a filibuster, from two-thirds to three-fifths of the Senate, while providing party leaders more tools so that they could keep members in line (back then reformers wanted more partisanship, not less).

Over time, the Watergate Babies lost much of their zeal for government reform. This class of Democrats eventually focused their attention on policy issues, becoming less interested in cleaning up the political process.

Waxman was a pioneer on issues such as the environment and health care, while Miller was a legislative giant who fought for programs like the minimum wage while others like Colorado's Gary Hart emphasized public investment in high tech industries and new approaches to defense. Some of the reforms also didn't work out as they intended.

But the original focus of the Watergate Babies is an important legacy and one that we should not forget. Their central argument that major policy innovations are impossible unless we make the political system better is one that would be worth remembering.

Although President Barack Obama made political reform part of his 2008 campaign promises, the issues faded quickly from his agenda. Nor have the tea party Republicans, who love to rail against the way that Washington works, really devoted much time to questions such as campaign finance. Rather, their emphasis has been about cutting the government down in size.

Today, reform is urgent. We badly need campaign finance rules that impose limits on what independent organizations can spend and lobbying reforms that seriously close the revolving door between Capitol Hill and the K Street lobbying complex.

Without procedural reforms to weaken the power of party leaders, heightened partisanship in the House and Senate won't subside. Without rules to change the budgeting process, the ability of our Congress to make decisions about spending and taxation in a more rational process -- one that does not constantly risk default -- will be extraordinarily difficult as well.

Without reforms that make sure continued bastions of secrecy, such as conference committees, open up their doors, there will be ongoing frustration with a lack of accountability in politics.

As Waxman and Miller step down, it is time to celebrate what they represented in their heyday during the 1970s. Politicians need to devote some of their capital to strengthening the processes of decision-making and governing. That's vital to restoring trust in government.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT