Sworn in to replace the disgraced Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford declared, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
Three months later, 76 Democrats won House seats, “some in districts that hadn’t elected a Democrat since before the Civil War,” marvels Henry Waxman, elected in 1974 as one of that year’s “Watergate babies,” and who went on to serve in the House for 40 years.
Nixon’s resignation opened a rare window for bipartisan action, as chastened Republicans joined an energized Democratic majority on issues ranging from election reform to ethics to curbing the powers of the executive in law enforcement and foreign affairs—and ending the funding for the Vietnam War.
Asked if he thinks the same thing could happen again, that a flurry of bottled-up legislation could pass post-Trump, maybe even a new war powers resolution that curbs executive power, Waxman replies, “Not really. Not yet.”
After a decade of gridlock, it’s hard to imagine a burst of legislative action that could command bipartisan majorities. Even so, Waxman says, “It’s good to use the opportunity, especially after Trump, to reform the system that has worked against our best interests as a democracy, as has Trump as a president.”
Two reform-minded groups dedicated to strengthening democracy, Protect Democracy Project, founded by former Obama administration lawyers, and Stand Up Ideas, co-founded by Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, have joined forces to develop a “Blueprint for the Day After” to lay out an ambitious set of proposals for quick legislative action at whatever point Trump leaves office.
The goal is to be able to take advantage of a window for passing reforms that is likely to be shorter in today’s accelerated media environment than it was post-Nixon. A working draft obtained by the Daily Beast highlights five core categories: (1) restoring the integrity of elections, (2) shoring up limits on executive power, including restoring the Constitutional check on the President’s war powers, (3) ensuring that government works for the people, not the personal interests of the President and his allies, (4); protecting inclusive and fact-based democratic participation, and (5) rebuilding faith in the project of American government.
Some provocative specifics include updating the Presidential Succession Act to provide a path forward “in the event an election is determined to have been tainted to the point of illegitimacy.” Citing Trump’s verbal assault on the courts and his controversial pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Arpaio, the draft report calls for “hardening” the line against interfering with an independent judiciary.
To prevent corruption and conflicts of interest, and to avoid a repeat of the issues we have seen with Trump and his family business, the draft report calls upon Congress to pass a legal requirement for candidates to disclose their tax returns and for presidents and vice presidents to submit to federal ethics rules.
Many of the suggested remedies to repair the damage done to our democracy by Trump’s autocratic whims could be legislated now if the Republican-controlled Congress had the will. “It’s not so much the institution is flawed, it’s how the people leading the institution view their mission,” says John Lawrence, whose new book is titled The Class of '74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.
Liberals running in 1974 understood they had to reform a top-heavy Congress controlled by conservative Southern Democrats to have any hope of passing meaningful legislation. Initiatives on civil rights, energy policy and consumer protections had all been jammed up by the autocracy of the system, says Lawrence, who worked in the U.S. House of Representatives for 38 years, including as Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff when she was Speaker of the House.
The first thing the Watergate babies did was form a New Members caucus. They met regularly and they demanded a meeting with every committee chair before giving them their vote. This was an exercise of power that rattled the old guard, and when Louisiana Democrat Edward Hebert, who chaired the House Armed Services committee, grudgingly appeared before the newcomers and told them that “Boys and girls, let me tell you how this place works,” that was the beginning of the end for him.
“It was a coup if you will,” Lawrence told the Daily Beast. “It was not vindictive, they didn’t take out every Southerner or every conservative.” They kept Democrat Wayne Hays, who chaired the House Administration committee and boasted about having a secretary who couldn’t type who was his mistress.
Remembering what it was like back then, Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan, who was first elected in ‘74, told the Daily Beast “there was every bit as much, if not more, concern about the direction our nation is headed, and distrust of our politics. Discontent was everywhere, and it was well founded.”
Nolan, who is retiring after this term, first introduced his Restore Democracy legislation in 2014. A 7-point plan, it calls for full disclosure of campaign financing, and a return to “regular order,” which lawmakers in both parties say that they want. That means legislation would go through the normal committee process, and there would be hearings and debate.
“The Congress is one of the least democratic institutions in the country,” says Nolan, citing the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package that just passed the House with no amendments and no debate.
“Real democracy is a lot of hard work. You sit there and listen to the debate. You don’t have time to go across the street to one of the call centers (where members dial for dough).” With scheduled votes, “you have the rest of the day to raise money,” he says with disdain.
In 2018, just like 1974, a lot of young people are running for Congress, and if they win, there’s nothing to prevent them from organizing and demanding Congress adapt to them. “It’s not the institution, it’s the attitude of the people in the institution,” says Lawrence.