At the beginning of November 1974, Democrats had many reasons to look forward to the upcoming balloting with great hope. Only three months before, the Watergate scandal had brought an end to the Nixon presidency. Only two months before, Gerald Ford had squandered a large part of the goodwill he had enjoyed upon entering office when he announced a preemptive pardon of Nixon. And 1974 had seen the United States slump into a deep recession while still fighting high inflation.
When the votes were counted, Democratic hopes had been realized. Republicans lost 48 House seats, five Senate seats, and statehouse after statehouse. The Democratic scythe cut most deeply in previously Republican suburbs where concerns about the economy and clean government resonated strongly.
The Democratic class of 1974, often known as the “Watergate babies,” were liberals in the new, McGovern mold—reformist, anti-military, sympathetic to the counterculture, and white-collar-oriented. If McGovern’s nomination heralded the end of a New Deal liberalism centered on unions, culturally-conservative ethnic voters, and anti-totalitarian toughness, the 1974 midterm elections put an exclamation point on it. The Watergate Babies would dominate the House for the next two decades, until the GOP finally gained control of Congress in 1994.
In contrast with several previous examples, the Congress elected in 1974 did not do much to set the stage for the next presidential election. However, the new liberal Congress pressed Ford hard on spending, forcing the former House minority leader into a series of vetoes. Confrontation between the branches, already high since 1969, did not diminish.
The influx of liberals into the House also had an important impact on the internal workings of that chamber. Relatively junior liberals from north and west rebelled against a seniority system that had put disproportionate power in the hands of aging Southern conservatives. In 1975, Democrats adopted a new set of rules that undercut the committee chairs by empowering both subcommittees below the chairs and the party leadership above them. The party caucus was given greater power to choose committee chairmen outside the process of seniority. Four conservative Southern Democrats were stripped of their chairs.
Perhaps the most important effects of the midterm elections came in foreign policy, however. The new Congress was much more willing to confront the President—and much less willing to confront the spread of communism. When North Vietnam violated the 1973 cease-fire agreement and invaded the South again in 1975, Ford desperately asked Congress for funds to re-supply the South before it was overrun. Congress refused, and on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell. In a certain respect, the midterm elections of 1974 sealed the fate of Indochina.
When Portugal gave up control of Angola and Mozambique in 1975, the Soviets and Cubans began aiding the pro-communist MPLA guerrilla group. When Ford asked Congress to help fund the pro-western group UNITA, it not only refused but passed the Clark amendment permanently enjoining any sort of aid to UNITA. (The Clark amendment was finally repealed in 1985.)
In both houses, liberal Democrats were emboldened to hold public hearings about CIA covert operations. Those hearings not only embarrassed the executive branch but arguably conveyed information that was damaging to national security. The hearings resulted in intelligence “reforms” that hamstrung intelligence and covert operations for the rest of the decade.
Altogether, the Congress elected in 1974 set about almost immediately to undermine the capacity of the United States and its friends to resist the expansion of Soviet power in the world. The record of that Congress might profitably be considered by Americans before they vote in November 2006. Congressional elections might typically hinge on issues like the economy and scandal, but the consequences of those elections can reach far afield, and sometimes can even make vain the sacrifices of many.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.