How the ‘Watergate babies’ broke American politics

National Archives/Gerald Ford Presidential Library

They arrived and began opening up Congress. They ended up inadvertently institutionalizing a distinctly partisan and confrontational style that permeates contemporary American politics today.

By John A. Lawrence | The Hill

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.

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