John Lawrence

Oversight, Partisanship, and 2018

Air Date: May 31, 2018

John Lawrence, former Chief of Staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, talks about his book “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. It would be difficult to imagine a more erudite veteran of the US Congress than our guest today. 38 year veteran, John Lawrence, served most recently as Chief of Staff to Speaker, leader Nancy Pelosi. Visiting professor at the University of California’s Washington Center, Lawrence joins the cohort of distinguished Open Mind congressional observers over the past several years. Former Biden chief of staff and Senator Ted Kaufman Senators Bradley and Frist, the list continues. John Lawrence is author of the Johns Hopkins University Press volume, “The Class of ’74: Congress after Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.” “To understand the highly polarized political environment that now pervades the House and American politics,” John Lawrence writes, “we must examine the complex politics that emerged in the wake of Watergate. A different kind of Congress,” Lawrence contends, “brought more reform to archaic House procedures, it brought generational change, emerging of the external activities of the streets, the campus, civil rights, anti-war movements, the battles for women’s rights, and consumer protection, the drive for energy innovation and transparent government.” And I want to ask John now to expound on this central thesis and on the lasting impact of this class of 1974.

LAWRENCE: There really are two major themes that run through this book. One is that the Class of ‘74 are a very diverse group of people, some of whom came out of traditional politics, some of whom as you mentioned came out of the politics of the street, the student movement, the anti-war movement, the consumer rights movement, confronted an institution that was very top-heavy, very autocratic, dominated to a large extent by southern conservatives who, because of the seniority system, controlled the process, in some cases even more so than the speaker and the elected leadership. And this is a group that came to Washington not so much to reform congress, ’cause a lot of them didn’t really know about the organizational dynamics. They basically came down over the war in Vietnam they told me when I interviewed over 40 of them. But once there, they hooked up with a group of frustrated reformers who had been trying to challenge the seniority system, diversify power, open up the processes of congress to make it more transparent. And they provided the key numbers that were needed to effectuate those reforms, and that did disseminate power and allowed for the institution to operate in a much more responsive and open way. So in that way the reforms that they helped to achieve really made congress more open and accountable as well as an institution that was able to reflect the changing agendas of the American people. The other part of the book however, also talks about how making the congress more open, particularly in the context of other changes that were taking place in American society and in American politics, combined to promote and encourage and support a new level of partisanship that divides America pretty dramatically by the late 1980s, early 1990s and has come to really dominate American politics today.

HEFFNER: And that disconnect that we experience today is largely a function of the human disconnect, the absence of interaction among members who are so frequently going back to their districts instead of engaging with each other? Or does it reflect a broader societal trend do you think?

LAWRENCE: I think it’s much deeper than that and I’m, as an historian I’m careful about single factor analysis. The loss of the individual contact that you mention is mentioned by members themselves and by historians and political scientists. I would not discount that the invention of jet airplanes, the Tuesday to Thursday club, the competitiveness of elections that force members to go back to their districts, those are all serious consequences, and you don’t see the same level of human interaction. You know when he was president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, used to still come up to the House and play handball in the House gym. Just to fraternize. Just to hang out and talk to people in a non-political, non-ideological way, and that really helped. I had that kind of relationship with John Boehner. And because I worked with him for many years before I ended up in the Speaker’s office or he ended up as the Republican leader. And it helped particularly when we got into a crisis in 2008 and we had to have lines of communication that one can only imagine could exist today. But there are other issues that go much deeper than the loss of the personal relationship, and that has to do with changes in the media which became much more ideological, changes in campaign finance and particularly the rise of outside spending. And then structurally in American politics as the Republican party revived in the south and the parties came more into parity, the competitiveness for control, the fight for control, which was not a factor for much of the 20th century, really exacerbated the level of partisanship and the lack of desire to find common ground.

HEFFNER: So the opposite could have or should have occurred, right, if you talk about the erosion of our democratic norms, the response being the election of reform oriented congressional office holders who wanna seek a consensus around clean transparent government in the aftermath of Watergate. It reconstituted or precipitated a new generation of polarization. Why did the opposite not happen? I mean you say that there were unintended consequences of the reform.

LAWRENCE: One of the reasons is that you do have these dramatic changes taking place in the 1970s, and one of the most significant changes is that the Republican party which is considered to be almost a permanent minority. As late as the late 1980s, even the early 1990s. People are still writing books saying the Republicans are the permanent minority, but with the growth of the party in the south, in the revival of the Goldwater years. In the rise of evangelicism, the, but the movement of conservative white voters into the south as black voters are moving into the Democratic party after the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. You really see these lines starting to harden. And issues that are chosen are chosen specifically for the purpose of highlighting the differences between the parties. So in effect, you lose most of the liberal to moderate Republicans, you lose most of the conservative to moderate Democrats, you have what political scientists call realignment, or the sorting of the parties, and there’s just not, there’s just not much opportunity for cooperation. One of the most dramatic indications I can tell you, there’s a study that looked at the House of Representatives from the 1970s to the current day. In the 1970s, out of the 435 people in the House of Representatives, in the 1970s, there were about 240 of them, that’s a majority, who constituted a middle ground. And about 29 out of the Senate. That is, they moved back and forth between the parties. Twenty years later, that number in the House had dropped to nine, and to three in the Senate. Today there’s none. There’s really nobody in that center. The center is sort of like they say in Texas, the only body in the center of the road is a yellow line and a dead armadillo. You go to the center in American politics today, you die. You become the target.

HEFFNER: In order to understand how we correct course today, we have to understand why ‘74, the class of ‘74 and subsequent classes were unable to accomplish what we might seek to accomplish now in the moderation of our discourse in politics.

LAWRENCE: Because things were very different then. You had a greater ideological breadth within the two parties as I was mentioning. So when we would write environmental legislation or civil rights legislation or legislation on women or children, we would be able to cross party lines because there were people who were prepared to do that, there were moderate to liberal republicans in the northeast and in the midwest, there were liberal Democrats and moderate Democrats in the south. Many of the people who were elected in 1974 are very progressive white Democrats in the south, but as the Republican party becomes more competitive, those repub, those more conservative Democratic voters are starting to move back to a more revitalized and competitive Republican party. They abandoned the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party becomes more liberal nationally. And they, people move to the issues that prove more divisive. I think one of the key points however, Alexander, I, certainly focus on here is that we have seen such a drop-off on this effort to reassert congress as a co-equal branch of government which was one of the key characteristics, both of the class of ‘74 and the Congress on a bipartisan basis in that era. Earlier the Congress had lost so much of its power to the Executive Branch that Senator Joe Clark of Pennsylvania wrote a book called “The Sapless Branch” of government” in the mid 1960s. Both Democrats and Republicans joined together to pass the War Powers Resolution in 1973, to pass the Budget and Impoundment Act in 1974 to claw back some of this power from a too active, too assertive Presidency. And one of the major reforms that the class of ‘74 helped to support was the rise of an aggressive oversight process in the Congress that would hold the Executive Branch accountable for how money was spent, and how programs operated. Unfortunately what we’ve seen is the real poetization of oversight. Where it becomes more of a gotcha operation, the same way many of the opportunities to amend legislation and committee on the floor have become gotcha operations. And both on the Democratic side and I think it’s fair to say on the Republican side.

HEFFNER: But now we see the complete relinquished oversight on the Republicans who were adamantly objecting to Obama Administration policy and withdrew entirely very few Republicans in the House if any, I can think of one or two who are critical of the EPA administrator who’s ensnared in a number of scandals. It did not coerce or force these congressional office holders to take on that oversight. And so the legislation itself that was responsible for that reform requires the human beings who are going to execute it. Now we see that’s diminished if not entirely disappeared in 2018.

LAWRENCE: I do think both sides probably have suffered from an unwillingness to exercise that oversight responsibility when their own party occupies the White House. I think that was the case when Democrats were in control of Congress and President Obama was in the White House. He had enough opposition I think we felt, from the Republicans he didn’t need more from us. In the current case of course one can only imagine if any number of these current issues were circulating and the parties were in different control of House and Senate and the White House that there should be really an aggressive investigation. Certainly for no other, no other issue than the fact that you have large numbers of people in the white house without security clearances, with potential questions about conflict of interest, having classified information and virtually nothing coming from the Congress.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about 2018.


HEFFNER: You were responsible for the messaging in the 2006 gains that the Democrats made, which were pretty remarkable given where they stood prior to ‘06. And of course you spearheaded communications during your tenure as Chief of Staff, to Speaker Pelosi, leader Pelosi. How would you assess the Democratic messaging in anticipation of 2018.

LAWRENCE: Let me first say there are lots of other people who were involved so I wouldn’t want to over-claim responsibility for the successful efforts. But what we did do in 2005, 2006, which was successful, was to make a really aggressive effort to identify those issues that would keep the Democratic Caucus together and that would equally differentiate us from the Republican party and in that particular case we also were assisted by President Bush who had unpopular wars that he was, that he was prosecuting Democrats that strongly opposed those wars for the most part. And he also had a disastrous proposal to begin privatization of social security. So when you do this kind of messaging, there’s really are those two, you have those two goals. One is find issues which are going to keep your people as tightly together as possible, and that’s not always easy, John Boehner used to refer to the difficulty of keeping his group together as trying to keep frogs in a wheelbarrow. And it’s tough. But you also have to differentiate from the other party. I think it’s still the Democrats are evolving that strategy for 2018. We were very successful in that we not only kept Democrats in the House together, we had a Democratic and Senate joint message in two 2005, 2006, the Six for ‘06 New Direction. I think the Democrats are focusing right now on particularly economic issues, on issues of ethics, and I think also just on issues of the Congress being revitalized as a working representative body, and I suspect that as we get closer into the election season you’ll see those messages clearer. At the same time I think there will be a real desire to let individual members of the House run the races they need to run. And raise voices the way, their voices the way they need to be raised as we just saw in the Pennsylvania 18 race, Congressman Lamb had slightly different takes on gun policy or on choice issues, I, you know I think, you think back to the Ronald Reagan Big Ten Republican concept, you’re going to have to be able to reach out to those kinds of regions in the Democratic Party and in the country if you’re gonna get to the majority. Mrs. Pelosi always says, if we don’t have 2018 votes, we’re just having a conversation so, you know we’ve already got all the liberal seats, you gotta figure out a way to appeal to a far more diverse and divergent views that still are prepared to identify as Democrats.

HEFFNER: Doug Jones was another case.


HEFFNER: In his election, there was a candidate he opposed who was analogous to Donald Trump in his moral corruption and the decline of our morality enabled Jones to assert himself as the conservative or the law and order Democrat.

LAWRENCE: The Alabama Senate race had many unique features as you pointed out, but the one that I think is very salient for the 2018 general election is the low Republican turnout. I think that a major factor this fall will be whether or not Republican voters look at both the Trump Administration and the role that their members of congress and senators are playing visa vie the policies of that administration and the ethics of that administration. And make a determination whether or not they wanna go to the polls to support people who are giving that that level of, of, acquiescence to the Trump agenda and to the Trump Administration. And there are many many seats throughout the country notwithstanding gerrymandering, where a falloff of five or seven percent of the Republican vote is going to be disastrous. So a major factor here is gonna be, do Republican voters really want to go to the polls and say notwithstanding all the scandals, notwithstanding all the economic vicissitudes, not taking into account cuts against the EPA or against education, I’m still willing to go and say I don’t need a check on that administration. What I think is more likely is that a lot of Republican voters are gonna say either I’m prepared to go over and support a reasonable Democratic alternative, or that many of them are simply not going to are going to vote with their feet and not vote; not that that’s my preference, I always like to see people come out and vote, but that’s a major determinant, especially, in off-year elections, as to whether or not you’re giving a vote of approval or a vote of disapproval or simply abstaining on the current administration.

HEFFNER: Contrasts are important and the reality for the Democrats is they have leaders, Nancy Pelosi your old boss and Chuck Schumer, who don’t represent, at least visually, and somewhat rhetorically too, the next generation of voters who were really decisive in some of these special elections, especially the ones we mention but, the gubernatorial election in Virginia, is it important at some point for the Speaker, former Speaker, leader, to signal that she would like to hand the party to a young gun who will take control of this agenda and when do you think that should happen if it should happen?

LAWRENCE: Well I think there are a couple of key points to think about. One is, it’s important that Democrats not simply accept the Republican characterization of Leader Pelosi and say it’s time for her to move on. I mean, she is elected in a secret vote by the Democratic Caucus, because the members of the caucus feel that she is the right person to lead them. She provides organizational structure, she provides messaging, she provides fundraising, there are reasons that they choose in a closed vote to select her. And just to say she’s ineffective or she’s been there too long or she’s that’s sort of buying into the Republican frame.

HEFFNER: And notice John I didn’t say any of those things, right.

LAWRENCE: No I know, but you know a lot of people do and they say you know it’s time to have someone there who’s not as divisive…


LAWRENCE: And I say you mean like when Tip O’Neill was there and Congressman LeBoutillier of Long Island referred to him as fat and loaded and out of control. Whoever is in charge is going to become a target, let’s realize that.

HEFFNER: That’s true. But the contrast is the point that may be important.

LAWRENCE: Well I think the other part which they could do a better job frankly of communicating is how assiduously Mrs. Pelosi has for example elevated younger members and minority members in particular, women, the Democratic caucus is a majority minority caucus. And, she goes through every two years when they’re reorganizing and putting people into key committee positions so they start gaining seniority and they start moving up and if you were to look at a chart of who the sub-committee chairman and the committee chairman on the Democratic side are, you would see a vastly diverse group of people. And this is the next generation. They are moving up, and they will in all likelihood I think be the next generation of leadership for the party when that occurs? You know it’s hard for me to predict. It’ll be when the Democratic Caucus makes that decision. The one thing I think I can say with absolute certainty and I, you know I don’t, I learned a long time never to speak for your boss in politics and certainly not for Leader Pelosi, but the one thing I can certainly say is that she is far more concerned about winning the majority than she is about ensuring that she remains the Democratic party leader.

HEFFNER: I want to compress strategy for ‘18, and differentiate it from ‘20. If you look at the strategy for a pro-democracy American presidential candidate in ‘20, you think of someone who is acknowledging that Making America Great to Donald Trump was making it greatly authoritarian, or wanna be authoritarian. That is his conception of great. And there’s almost a sense that we need to come back to normalcy. You know, normality. Whichever you prefer you’re a historian so you get that reference. Come back to normal. Bring back normal. Is that a message for ‘18 and/or ‘20?

LAWRENCE: Well I think absolutely it is. I think the most important issue that’s going to resonate with voters is, are you taking care of the basic needs of the country and what is good for me and what is good for my family. Look, we have, we’ve got real serious challenges facing the country, certainly in the international level on a security level, but also domestically even though we have a reviving economy it moves in spurts and it obviously the disparity of income and the disparity of wealth are enormously important issues. And I think that voters want to see a party that steps forward and addresses those issues as opposed to this manufactured crisis which we just seem to have from day to day. In a sense it doesn’t really matter that much if you share the broad conservative agenda. I’m not sure the broad conservative agenda for example was served by a 1.3 trillion dollar deficit, that was needlessly created or by a tax bill that created a 1.5 trillion dollar deficit. A lot of Republicans I know say, you know that doesn’t have anything to do with why I’m a conservative, or why I’m a Republican. But I think people also look at these other vast areas whether it’s climate change or whether or not it’s modernization of the military or whether it’s affordability of higher education or preserving healthcare. These are the issues that people live with day to day. And instead they see ranting and raving and people moving in and out of office and scandal …

HEFFNER: Nonsense. They see nonsense. Bring back sense and…

LAWRENCE: And so I think that’s exactly right.

HEFFNER: And how is that a competing strategy to what I’ve long said, Leader Pelosi and Schumer should do if not the 2020 presidential candidate who opposes Donald Trump which is on the issue of infrastructure. Go to all of the bridges and tunnels and roadways and schools that he promised would be refurbished, renovated, revitalized, and say this didn’t happen. Don the Con is really what this was. Is that a strategy for ‘18 midterm candidates? Or is that more effective as a strategy for a 2020 presidential candidate.

LAWRENCE: I think it’s a major issue for 2018. I’m going back over the notes that I kept when I was the chief of staff to the speaker, and I see back as early as 2006, 2007, Democrats are talking about infrastructure. Now unfortunately at that point we had an economic collapse. And we did pass legislation, a stimulus bill that provided tens of billions of dollars for infrastructure. It’s spending out over a long period of time. But there hasn’t been that big infrastructure, step forward that you were talking about that would combine both in terms of jobs, but also in terms of improving trade and improving transportation for the American public. I think that’s a vitally important area both economically and in terms of individuals jobs that people ought to speak to, but you know the point I would pick up on that you mentioned is, the congress should not be waiting around for the president to send an infrastructure. There is a transportation and infrastructure. There is a transportation and infrastructure committee there is an appropriations committee. And instead what you see is Paul Ryan saying well I’m going to wait to see what the president sends us. No, that’s not the way the system is supposed to work.

HEFFNER: It is not, it’s not the greatest deliberative, well it’s second place, right? The Senate is the greatest deliberative body, but,

LAWRENCE: Perhaps.

HEFFNER: Neither is deliberative anymore. That’s the problem. It’s not greatly deliberative, it’s not deliberative at all because Paul Ryan, Speaker Ryan refuses to have an open discourse in the House.

LAWRENCE: Right and even when we had the Democrats in control of the White House and in control of the House and Senate, I was in those meetings, believe me, there was a very vigorous back and forth between Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, and it was not simply waiting to defer and see what the president sends us. The only other point I would make is this,


LAWRENCE: People say well this system isn’t capable of doing that. And I would just remind viewers and I remind my classes and other people I speak with, ten years ago the United States faced the most serious economic crisis since the great depression. And a Republican administration and a Democratic speaker and congress, and in fact a speaker who was highly critical of the administration specifically on the lack of regulation of the financial services industry which caused the collapse. Nevertheless in a highly partisan environment, six weeks before an election, were able to come together and figure out a way to pass legislation that arguably saved the American economy and the western economy. My bottom line point is, it’s not the institution, it’s the people who are running the institution, and their attitudes. And that is the majority, that’s just the way the congress is set up, the majority establishes the tone, and the majority establishes the agenda. And if you’re not satisfied with that, then you have to change the people who are going to, who are running…

HEFFNER: Right and you have to counterpunch. And I’m thinking of that meeting that Pelosi and Schumer did not attend where there were placards with their names and they were absent. I’m thinking to myself well they should go to all of those bridges and roads and…

LAWRENCE: Ports and airports, yes.

HEFFNER: Ports, airports, and say, you sold us a bill of goods and nothing came of it.

LAWRENCE: Absolutely. You squandered that money on the top one tenth of one percent.


LAWRENCE: You gave them a tax break.

HEFFNER: And you’re no builder, you’re no builder.

LAWRENCE: Apparently.

HEFFNER: John, talk about the ‘74 Class, they were some constructors and builders. And we appreciate you being here today.

LAWRENCE: Thank you so much, I really enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.