George Miller of California, one of the most senior House Democrats, announced today that he’s retiring at the end of this term. Miller is one of the last of the “Watergate babies,” the historic class elected in 1974; only Henry Waxman remains from that class in the House, with Pat Leahy the sole survivor in the Senate. (Democratic Senators Max Baucus and Tom Harkin were both elected to the House in 1974, as well, but they’ve already announced their coming retirements.)
Miller’s career is a good reminder that individual members matter, even in the current strong-party era. He’s been a legislative leader on several issues, perhaps most notably the No Child Left Behind education reform signed into law by President George W. Bush. Miller was also one of several veteran Watergate babies who were key players on the Affordable Care Act.
That last point speaks to an oddity of democracy. Whatever voters in 1974 actually intended, it probably wasn’t Obamacare or No Child Left Behind. Yet if the 1974 elections had produced very different results, it’s possible that those two laws never would have happened, or at least might have happened very differently. More broadly, the entire House Democratic Caucus has been strongly influenced for almost 40 years by the 1974 midterm election. So, in reaction, has the House Republican Conference.
This is yet another example of how a system that strongly empowers elected partisan majorities can produce a problematic version of democracy. In real life, election results are “sticky” over time; what happens in one election matters years to come, giving winners in one round an advantage in the next one -- and the one after that. We could also say it gives voters from the past too much influence over the present, even though most of those past voters probably didn’t care at all about the policy discussions that emerged later.
The result is almost random. That can’t be entirely avoided, but it can be tempered by making elections only one of many democratic influences on policy outcomes. One way representation works is through constant back-and-forth between elected politicians and their constituents. Legislators don’t just wait until the next election to receive marching orders. Meanwhile, U.S. democracy is also enhanced, even in partisan eras, by having plenty of only loosely connected elections (435 just for the House alone!), so that no one election result matters all that much.
One result of that is a real strength of the U.S. system: the way it empowers individual members of the legislature. We don’t sufficiently celebrate outstanding members of Congress; we should. George Miller has been one.