With few exceptions, the Class of ’74 did not seek office to reform an outdated Congress, but upon their arrival, they quickly learned a key lesson: without changes to traditions like the seniority system that disproportionately rewarded conservatives in single-party districts, few of their policy objectives would be achievable. However, the reforms they helped implement not only ended the deference to seniority, but also redistributed power within the House, to the elected leadership and also to increasingly autonomous subcommittees on which more junior members would play an influential role. The meetings, deliberations and votes of those panels, and the House floor itself, were opened to increased public scrutiny and accountability thanks to greater press access and recorded voting.
When volatile political, religious and cultural issues combined with procedural reforms that the Class of ’74 pushed through in an attempt to open up Congress, the changes set in motion unanticipated transformations that endangered the longtime Democratic majority, promoted the realignment of the political parties along ideological lines, and helped to institutionalize a distinctly partisan and confrontational style that permeates contemporary American politics today.
“We were a conquering army,” recalls George Miller, the longtime California congressman and Class of ’74 member who took office at the age of 29. “We came here to take the Bastille. We destroyed the institution by turning the lights on.”