Reviews | Why Watergate-era campaign finance laws failed

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Ellen L. Weintraub is a commissioner with the Federal Election Commission.

Burglars who broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex 50 years ago sparked cover-ups, investigations, constitutional crises, presidential resignation, profound damage to Americans’ faith in government and a series of bipartisan laws aimed at restoring that faith. One of those laws created a small federal agency to “follow the money,” the Federal Election Commission, where I work.

These laws also triggered an almost immediate reaction in the Supreme Court, starting with its Buckley vs. Valeo decision in 1976 and accelerating in recent years. The court ruling last month in FEC vs. Ted Cruz for Senate, who allows donors to slip money directly into the pocket of an elected official, is the latest scandal but probably not the last.

Watergate player actions were brazenly corrupt. When President Richard M. Nixon’s White House attorney, John Dean, told him that money would be needed to pay for the Watergate burglars’ blackmail demands, Nixon replied“You could win a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. I mean, it’s not easy, but it could be done.

It is always shocking to hear a president plotting to raise silent funds to cover up political crimes. But the amounts involved seem almost odd compared to the gigantic sums currently pouring into American politics, much of which is either legalized or authorized by the Supreme Court.

Donald Graham: Watergate resonated because The Post reported the truth

The court has assimilated money with speech, overturned political spending limits and authorized companies. He seems determined to entrench, and frankly celebrate, the power of major donors. It’s surprisingly out of step with public opinion – a 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 77% of Americans support political donation limits.

The Watergate scandal involved large sums of money, much of it cash, collected clandestinely from private individuals, corporate donors and foreign sources, and delivered to Nixon’s political operation. People and companies have succeeded for follow-up to provide these illegal funds.

Today? Delivering bags of cash to political campaigns remains illegal, as do direct corporate donations to candidates’ campaigns. But over the past twelve years, there has been a proliferation of super PACs so closely associated with candidates that giving super PACs offers virtually the same benefits.

Thanks to the yard 2010 decision in Citizens United v FEC, corporations can legally give these PACs. Individual donors who would be prohibited from giving $3,000 directly to a candidate’s campaign can legally donate millions to a supportive super PAC. And the court insists that’s fine because “independent spending, including that made by businesses, does not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

During the 2020 election season, federal fundraising totaled more than $14 billion. While substantial sums have been raised from small donors, it is now common to see individual donors giving millions of dollars. And those are just the ones we know about. Contributions to super PACs must be disclosed, but sophisticated, secretive donors know they can give to ideologically aligned nonprofits that will funnel their money to super PACs without revealing the donors to the public. (Politicians presumably know who their benefactors are.) It has contributed over a billion dollars in black silver flooding American politics in 2020 alone.

The Post’s View: what Watergate can teach us today

The FEC had some Hit to prosecute foreign donors, but I remain concerned that foreign money can enter the system through domestically incorporated but owned and influenced by foreigners.

The FEC bears some responsibility for this sad state of affairs. Lax enforcement and failure to update our regulations to keep up with changing political practices has left the law unenforced and riddled with loopholes. The bipartisan structure of the FEC (six commissioners, with no more than three from any political party) and increased polarization have often thwarted efforts simply to investigate alleged serious violations.

What can be done? The Supreme Court is unlikely to revise its views on corruption, but solutions still exist, if we can muster the political will to enact them.

Congress should reinvigorate languid bills to strengthen disclosure, which would help ensure the transparency the Supreme Court has (so far) vigorously endorsed, and strengthen barriers to foreign spending in our elections. And the FEC needs to update its rules (unchanged from before United Citizens) to meaningfully address the porous relationships between candidates and big-budget super PACs. Stricter enforcement – ​​by the FEC in civil matters and the Department of Justice in criminal matters – is essential.

Watergate is not just the story of a failed burglary. The corruption exposed caused a shock to the political system that brought together government officials from all parties to uncover the truth and attempt to rebuild trust. In these polarized times, a similar rapprochement seems unimaginable. The model is there – but it would require Republicans to work with Democrats, as they did 50 years ago.

About Charles D. Goolsby

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