Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, an event of startling criminality that left a permanent scar on American politics and Americans’ trust in government. The scandal began when five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. The ensuing investigation led straight to the highest echelons of the White House and eventually forced the first resignation of an American president on August 9, 1974.
The anniversary of the Watergate affair should serve as a reminder of the dangers of lax regulations on political campaign contributions. A recent Washington Post article reflects on the important relationship of money in politics in the era of Nixon and the crime committed at Watergate:
During four pivotal weeks in spring 1972, the president brought in as much as $20 million — about $110 million in today’s dollars — much of it in the form of illegal corporate donations and all of it raised to avoid disclosure rules that went into effect that April.
“The decision was made that it was time to put the hay in,” John Dean, Nixon’s counsel at the time, recalled in an interview last week. “A lot of us believe Watergate might never have happened without all that money sloshing around.”
The Nixon administration’s dogged pursuit of reelection by all means and the president’s own paranoia marked his administration’s disregard of campaign finance ethics and eventually paved the road to future illicit actions regarding the Watergate affair.
The current atmosphere of unlimited campaign financing following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision eerily harkens back to the Nixon era:
Four decades later, there’s little need for furtive fundraising or secret handoffs of cash. Many of the corporate executives convicted of campaign-finance crimes during Watergate could now simply write a check to their favorite super PAC or, if they want to keep it secret, to a compliant nonprofit group.
“I think we’re in the middle of a scandal that hasn’t quite gelled yet,” said Roger M. Witten, who worked in the Watergate special prosecutor’s office and now handles campaign-finance cases at WilmerHale in New York. “A tremendous amount of ground has been lost. We’ll have to relearn the lessons of Watergate — that money corrupts the system.”
Unfortunately, lessons learned following Nixon’s resignation were forgotten as campaign finance reforms were later largely reversed:
Congress responded to Watergate by amending the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, which implemented contribution and spending limits, created the FEC and provided a system of public financing for presidential contests. The Supreme Court soon struck down the spending limits and other restrictions on free-speech grounds in Buckley v. Valeo.
Citizens United arguably removed the final barrier between the lessons learned following Watergate and a return of the dark times of secret money in politics that destroyed Nixon’s presidency. We must not forget that history has a tendency of repeating itself.