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A truckload of watermelons: Five OMG’s from John Lawrence’s “The Class of ‘74”

John Lawrence has some tales to tell. He served nearly four decades in the House, culminating as the chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi during her stint as speaker from 2007-2011.

Lawrence’s book, The Class of ‘74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship (Johns Hopkins), was released earlier this year, and is a heady, political history book. Lawrence shows how the 1974 election of 93 new members —76 Democrats and 17 Republicans— helped disrupt the status quo of the House.

He also shows how the rules changes the newbies fought for helped unleash pent-up Republican frustration and intra-chamber partisanship. Polyester tracksuits, tube tops, and platform shoes are (mostly) relics of the past, but 1970s-style House politics remain very much with us today. And five Democrats from the Class of ‘74 —Max Baucus (Mt), Chris Dodd (Ct), Tom Harkin (Ia), George Miller (Ca), and Henry Waxman (Ca)—played big roles in the enactment of Obamacare in 2010.

LegBranch.org interviewed Lawrence recently (video here), and here we highlight five, jaw-dropping anecdotes from that conversation. For anyone who despairs of the state of the people’s House today, these incidents are a reminder that things have been worse. Way worse.

  1. Smacking down the newbie.  Shortly after his election in 1969, Rep. David Obey (D, Wi) approached Rep. Wayne Hayes (D, Oh) for a favor. He “asked Hayes to consider trading rooms in the Longworth Building so [Obey’s] annex might be closer to his main office. Hayes walked over from the Capitol and unlocked the door to his annex. Peering inside Obey was astonished: the room was filled from floor to ceiling with expensive French furniture gathered during Hayes’s frequent European junkets. ‘This furniture is for my retirement home in Ohio,’ Hayes explained. ‘Now you wouldn’t want me scratching it just to do a favor for some chickenshit freshman, would you?’ With that Hayes relocked the annex door and walked away.”
  2. Getting off on the wrong foot. It was January of 1975, and Rep. William Barrett (D, Pa) was perusing papers at his desk on the floor of the House. Barrett had first been elected in 1948, and was 78 years old. He beckoned a young man in a white shirt and dark blue jacket to his desk. “Here, take these papers to my office,” Barrett directed. “Go fuck yourself,” was the reply. Barrett was gobsmacked and outraged. He pressed a button and Donn Anderson, the cloakroom supervisor, hot-footed it over. “This page just told me to go fuck myself!” cried Barrett. Anderson replied by noting this page was in fact Rep. Tom Downey, a newly elected Democrat from New York.
  3. Age before wisdom. The House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee once had a rule that limited members’ questions to one per hearing per year of service. And questions had to be submitted to the chairman in advance of the hearing. This “Vinson rule” came courtesy of Carl Vinson (D, Ga), who was elected to  the House in 1914 and served for half a century. Junior committee members—meaning anyone who had not served for decades— were to be seen and not heard. The committee’s chairman, F. Edward Hebert (R, La), was especially displeased when a woman and an African American joined the committee. Hebert made Rep. Pat Schroeder (D, Co) and Ron Dellums (D, Ca) share a chair on the dais, viewing each as half a legislator.
  4. Epic fail and fall. Wilbur Mills (D, Ar) took over as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1958. He was immensely powerful … until he wasn’t. The Class of ‘74 and other House reformers moved to take away his authority to appoint legislators to committees. Mills had never faced such a challenge and begged his Democratic colleagues to support him. They didn’t, in part because Mills had humiliated himself by getting caught driving drunk with stripper Fanne Foxe (Annabella Battistella) the month before. Democrats voted 146 to 122 to shift appointment power to Steering and Policy. A few days later Mills ensured he would never make a comeback. He got blitzed and joined Battistella on a Boston stage, “and then held a press conference in her dressing room during which he referred to the stripper (whose husband was present) as ‘my little old Argentine hillbilly.’ Speaker Carl Albert (D, Ok) sacked Mills as Ways and Means chairman shortly thereafter, and Mills checked into detox.
  5. A truckload of watermelons. John McMillan (D, SC) lorded over the House Committee on the District of Columbia. “McMillan made little attempt to hide his contempt for the capital’s African American majority or the weak local government. When appointed Mayor Walter Washington sent the first city-developed budget to the Hill in 1967 for the committee’s review, McMillan responded by sending a truckload of watermelons to Washington’s office.” McMillan got his comeuppance in 1972 when he was primaried by the more liberal John Jenrette—who went to jail a decade later for bribery.
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