Sometimes smaller scale events can mean major changes. Such was the case of the revolt of the House freshmen in 1975. The class of Democrats elected to the legislative branch in 1974, known as “Watergate Babies”, were overwhelmingly liberal. These people were eager to change Washington as well as their party. At the time, many of the chairmen of crucial committees were Southern. George Mahon of Texas headed Appropriations, F. Edward Hebert of Louisiana headed Armed Services, W.R. “Bob” Poage of Texas headed Agriculture, Wright Patman of Texas headed Banking and Currency, and Olin “Tiger” Teague of Texas headed Science and Astronautics. All five of these men had backed the Vietnam War, opposed civil rights legislation during the 1950s and 1960s, all but Teague were over 70, and all but Patman were conservative. This was a distinctly poor fit among a class of overwhelmingly Northern liberal Democrats, who wanted the party to go in a McGovern direction. Among the key freshmen participants in this revolt included Thomas Downey and Edward Pattison of New York, Andrew Maguire of New Jersey, and Toby Moffett of Connecticut. The former three had defeated Republican incumbents who had served over ten years.
Although George Mahon was well into his seventies and had served in the House since 1935, he was still energetic and sharp. He had also gained a reputation for not abusing his power and playing fair as chair, which helped him keep his chairmanship. Mahon, a consistent critic of spending, often opposed liberal initiatives. However, if it was clear a majority of the House supported them he would not obstruct them. Like many Southern Democrats, he opted to retire in 1978.
Perhaps the greatest target among the chairmen was F. Edward Hebert. Serving in the House since 1941, he was an especially autocratic chairman who gave high-handed treatment to new committee members Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.), who he had been forced to take on his committee in 1973. His objections to the two stemmed partly from them being a woman and black respectively and partly due to their staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. Hebert took an uncritical approach to funding the military as well as having an unwavering support for the Vietnam War. In fairness to Hebert, his committee did investigate the My Lai Massacre and accused the military and State Department officials of covering up evidence (Weil, 1979). On January 16, 1975, he was voted out of his position. After this defeat, he opted not to run for reelection.
Bob Poage knew all sorts of things about agriculture, from the USA to laws about grazing in Australia. He became known as the “Bureau of Useless Information” for his obscure knowledge on agricultural matters, with the term even being used in his presence. Although a New Dealer when he first arrived in Washington in 1937, his enthusiasm for an active and large federal government had fallen since then, with his record on support for the Great Society being spotty at best. His conservatism grew especially after the 1968 election. Poage’s priorities differed distinctly from Northern liberals: he often opposed food stamp legislation, but found that he had to trade funding the food stamp program to protect agricultural subsidies, which he strongly supported. His greatest pride was in legislation that helped the farmers back home, such as the installation of rural telephones. Although not an offensive or unfair chairman, Poage was so out of step both ideologically and with the times that the liberals gave him the boot. Although the new chair Tom Foley (D-Wash.) was generous to him as Vice Chair after his ouster, his glory days had come and gone and he opted not to run for reelection in 1978.
Wright Patman was a standout from the group because he was an old-time progressive who had never dropped his support of the New Deal, although on some matters he had not moved with the times. Having served since 1929, he was staunchly against concentrations of economic power in the private sector and crusaded against big banks. He had also sponsored the Robinson-Patman Act, which aimed to prevent big chain stores from putting small competitors out of business by cutting their prices (Shanahan, 1976). His ouster was due possibly to some misconceptions about him, but also because he was 81 and had trouble answering basic questions before the House steering committee. The sad irony for Patman was that he had raised more money than anyone else to elect the Democratic freshmen (Crass, 2015). He died a year after his ouster.
Tiger Teague, the second highest decorated war veteran from World War II after Audie Murphy and the youngest of the chairmen at 64, was spared ouster due to his personal popularity despite his conservatism and failing health. His popularity derived from both his record as a war hero and his agreeable, friendly personality. Teague, who had served since 1947, would also choose not to run for reelection in 1978.
While this ousting of three chairmen to the layperson may seem like small fries, it was the prelude for the Democratic Party as we know it today. The message was clear: seniority would no longer be the only factor for committee chairmanships. Chairmen could not regularly buck the party platform. Subsequent chairs of major committees with conservative records like Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) and Walter Jones (D-N.C.) would have to play ball with national Democrats and vote much more their way. Thus, their records shifted substantially left during the Reagan years, with both men opposing tax cuts and supporting more funding for social spending bills…the kind of measures they would have opposed in the 1960s. This dropping of seniority standards led to institutional pressures that played its part in the situation we have today with polarization. The docket of even moderately liberal Democrats is ever so thin if the latest American Conservative Union ratings are to be believed as an accurate picture of the contemporary political environment.
Burka, P. & Smith, G. (May 1976). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
Clift, E. & Brazaitis, T. (2003). Madam president: Women blazing the leadership trail. New York, NY: Routledge.
Crass, S. (2015). Statesmen and mischief makers: Officeholders and their contributions to history from Kennedy to Reagan, Vol. II. Xlibris.
Shanahan, E. (8 March 1976). Wright Patman, 82, Dean of House, Dies. The New York Times.
Tolchin, M. (10 February 1975). Freshmen Representatives Find Awe and Ah! in Capital. The New York Times.
Weil, M. (30 December 1979). Former Rep. F. Edward Hebert Dies. Washington Post.