Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that started the biggest political debacle in modern American history, leading to a slew of powerful laws reforming our system of financing campaigns. Forty years later, the core of those reforms have been dismantled by Citizens United.
As The Washington Post’s Dan Eggen put it,
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. Corporations can spend as much as they want to help their favored candidates, no longer prohibited by law from spending company cash on elections.
Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign took advantage of a gap in election laws to raise $20 million -- $110 million in 2012 dollars -- in a four-week period, including absurd scenarios like the handing off of $200,000 in political contributions in an unmarked brown attaché case. In response, Congress amended the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, creating the Federal Election Commission (FEC), adding limits to campaign spending and self-funding, and limiting contributions for federal elections. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on campaign spending in their 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo.
Today, after years of progress toward a democracy free of special interests, we find ourselves in a situation strikingly similar to the Watergate era. As a result of Citizens United, super PACs and political “social welfare” nonprofits are raising unlimited money for campaign spending, often in secret. We’re now faced with the farcical situation of a casino mogul promising “limitless” money in the 2012 election, Congress obstructing the public from gathering information on who pays for political ads, and two brothers heading a network to spend more than John McCain did for his entire presidential run in 2008.
Just forty years after the corrupting power of money in our democracy reached its apex, the lessons of Watergate seem to be lost on this Congress. Now, one wonders how many secret, million-dollar donations -- or the scandals that result from them -- it will take before the current system collapses again under its own weight.