Tuesday, 14 December 2010

93rd Congress

Election Day (November 7th) 1972 saw a massive landslide for the incumbent President, Richard Nixon. He carried 49 States - winning 520 votes in the Electoral College. His Democratic opponent, George McGovern gained just 17 Electoral College votes on 37.5% of the popular vote. He didn't even win his own state of South Dakota.

On the face of it, Nixon couldn't have done better - but problems were not far from the surface. The greatest, the Watergate Scandal, was growing - and just 20 months later Nixon had become the first US President to resign in disgrace. The Vice President elected that November day (Spiro Agnew) was himself out of office after being charged with bribery and pleading "no contest"  to a single charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967.

The Watergate scandal involved the bugging of the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate Building in Washington DC. The arrest of the burglars in the office occured on June 17th - and the conversation which was to bring down Nixon occured on June 23rd - accessible here. Watergate was to dominate the work of the 93rd Congress.

The elections of November 7th 1972 had not been as bad for the Democrats as the disastrous Presidential Election. They lost 13 seats in the House of Representatives, but still held a comfortable position with 242 seats to the Republicans' 192. (51.7% of the popular vote - down a mere 1.3%). In the Senate the democrats gained a net two seats - resulting in a 56-42 split. Joe Biden was one of the newly elected senators who defeated a Republican. The Senate results though saw the Democrats' popular vote fall by 6.9% while the Republicans increased their popular vote by 12.5%.

Before the Congress came into existence, the ruling Democratic caucus had elected Tip O'Neill as the new Majority Leader. It has also made changes to the seniority rules which were to be further reformed at the start of the 94th Congress. New members entered the House which set the scene for major changes in the House's  practices. In February the Democratic caucus voted to to require all House Committee hearings to be open (unless for National Security or Personal matters). A bipartisan committee was set up under Richard Bolling to consider reforms to the House Rules - which recommended major changes, but this was sidelined by the Democratic caucus. Instead the matter was referred to the Hansen Committee - which was more modest.

Congress had already attempted to investigate aspects of Watergate. An earlier Washminster post has considered the investigation in the summer of 1972 by the Committee on Banking and Currency. It ended its investigation - but the 93rd Congress saw the establishment of the Ervin Committee in February 1973. The hearings were televised. In 1974 the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee were authorised to investigate whether sufficient grounds existed to impeach President Nixon.

It was also in Congress that the fate of Agnew was sealed. He had come under investigation in August 1973 after a federal Grand Jury looking at claims that Maryland public officials had received kickbacks from architects and engineers who had gained contracts for public works projects, had found evidence of payments to the (former) Governor of the State. In order to forestall indictment, Agnew came up with the idea of submitting his case to the House of Representatives. While he could face impeachment, the process could have been dragged out for many months. In late September he called on the Speaker, Carl Albert, and requested that the House, rather than the Baltimore grand jury, judge his case. There was an 1826 precedent for this. Tip O'Neill, who was later to be Speaker, was sceptical of the request. An attempt by Albert to the Judiciary Committee was out-manouevered by O'Neill. Days later Agnew resigned the vice-presidency. A detailed description of the events can be found in John A Farrell's "Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century".

The 93rd Congress also passed much legislation - the most well known today being the War Powers Resolution. It was vetoed by Nixon - but the veto was overridden on 7th November 1973. A Congressional Research Service paper on the topic - prepared in 2004 - is available here.