Watergate + 40: What have we unlearned?


Watergate Complex

This Sunday is the 40th anniversary of the break-in that led to President Richard Nixon's downfall. The commemorations this week will mostly focus on the investigative reporting that unravelled the story — and that now is in danger. That's a concern that we at the Sunlight Foundation share and try to address in the tools we make available to help journalists and citizens be better civic watchdogs.

But it's also important to remember Watergate's other legacy: Two years after the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices — by a group of so-called plumbers who were paid by a Nixon reelection campaign that was flush with corporate cash — Congress passed sweeping legislation designed to limit the influence of the money in politics. The lawmakers limited the size of donations individuals could make to candidates — or to independent efforts to help elect them, created the Federal Election Commission and required those engaged in election activity to register and report those expenditures.

Given that history, it's hard to imagine a week more rich in irony to remember Watergate. Consider: 

  • On Monday, the Supreme Court will meet privately to consider whether to hear challenge to its 2010 Citizens United decision by the state of Montana, which contends that the state's law against corporate contributions to political campaigns should be allowed to stand. Supporters of the Citizens United opinion are arguing for summary dismissal of the case. We may know something about the Court's decision in a week.  Meanwhile, as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and other alumni of the Washington Post's Watergate coverage reportedly hold an anniversary party at the now going-to-seed landmark, Mitt Romney will be at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser in Atlanta. He's scheduled to be introduced by his former rival, Newt Gingrich, whose campaign was prolonged by multi-millions in contributions from gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family — largesse made possible by the Citizens United ecision.
  • On Tuesday, Romney will be shaking the money tree again — this time in Ohio where, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, some donors will be paying $10,000 to get their picture taken with Obama's Republican rival. The president will be holding fundraisers in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, voters in Arizona's 8th Congressional District will be going to the polls to elect a replacement for retired Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The contest, for a six-month term, has drawn more than $2.3 million in spending by outside groups, more than any other House race so far this cycle. A number of committees active in the race are set up to take the kind of big checks that would have been banned under the post Watergate legislation.
  • On Wednesday, Bob Woodward is scheduled to be at the Newseum discussing the Watergate anniversary. 
  • On Thursday, the president will be in New York City for a series of fundraisers while Romney poaches on Obama's turf with a fundraiser in the president's home town, Chicago.

One reason for all the time spent with donors: Both candidates are ignoring the public financing system that was set up by Congress the year before Watergate happened. This will be the first presidential election since then in which both candidates opt out of public financing for the entire campaign — both the general election and the primary process.

A lightning rod for much of the post-Watergate outrage was Nixon's Commerce secretary, Maurice Stans, who doubled as the chairman of the president's reelection committee. Stans infamously accepted a suitcase filled with $250,000 in cash from one of Nixon's corporate benefactors. All told, he raised $60,000 for his boss' campaign. Obama and Romney each raised more than that last month.

Meanwhile, Sunlight's Follow the Unlimited Money tracker shows the investment of outside interest groups in the 2012 campaign at $118 million and counting. Of that, about $12 million comes from entities that aren't legally required to report their donors, according to the calculations of my colleague Jacob Fenton.

That's a lot of overstuffed suitcases. Think of that as you think about the significance of this week's anniversary.