How does the brave new world of campaign financing created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision stack up against Watergate? The short answer is: Things are even worse now than they were then. The 1974 scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon was all about illegal money secretly flowing to politicians. That’s still a danger, but these days, the biggest weakness of our campaign finance system is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. As Dan Eggen of theWashington Post put it, “there’s little need for furtive fundraising or secret handoffs of cash.” The rules increasing allow people and corporations with great wealth to skew public policy toward their interests—without risking a jail time, or a fine, or any penalty at all. It’s an influence free-for-all. The Washington Post reminds us what the country faced in the time of Watergate: “Money ran wild in American politics. One man, W. Clement Stone, gave more than $2 million to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. The Watergate break-in was financed with secret campaign contributions. Fat cats plunked down cash for ambassadorships, and corporations for special treatment.” Fred Wertheimer, who has been pushing for campaign finance reform for decades, recounts that the corruption of old got results: “The dairy industry gave $2 million to the Nixon campaign and soon got the increase in dairy price supports they were seeking. Nixon overrode his Agriculture Department’s objection to put these supports in place.”
Today, no one gives an illegal $2 million contribution directly to a presidential candidate. If you’re Sheldon Adelson, why break federal law, which caps individual donations to a candidate at $2,500, when you can just give $100 million to super PACs and other organizations supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign? Yes, to stay in the law’s good graces, these groups must follow the Federal Election Commission’s rules barring certain forms of “coordination” with a candidate’s campaign. But the candidate may solicit money for the group; his former campaign workers, friends, and confidantes may run the group; and friends and family can give unlimited sums to support his candidacy. All of this now happens not in the shadows, but with the blessing of the courts and the FEC.
Even the $2,500 contribution limit on direct contributions to candidates (really $5,000, because people can give to a candidate once for the primary and once for the general) is barely a road block to big givers. Both Romney and Obama have set up “joint victory” committees, sharing contributions among the candidate campaign and state and local parties. The real current limit, set by federal law on individual contributions to a presidential candidate and supporting party committees, is $75,800. Corporations as well as individuals have plenty of legal ways to throw their money around. Back in the Watergate days, American Airlines funneled secret money to the Nixon campaign through Beirut. It was complicated, shady, and illegal. These days, as the New York Times has explained, corporations can give millions legally to party conventions, getting special perks. And thanks to Citizens United and the FEC, corporations have the same leeway as individuals to give to super PACs, the U.S. Chamber, and other groups.