When the Supreme Court issued its disastrous Citizens United decision, five justices took the nation back to the era of secret money, unlimited campaign contributions and corporate funds at the core of the Watergate scandal. On June 17, 1972, a burglary at the Watergate Hotel began the unraveling of the worst political and campaign-finance scandals of the 20th century — and the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Yet today, massive amounts of secret money, unlimited contributions and corporate funds are again flowing into federal elections. The same elements that corrupted government decisions and officeholders in the early 1970s have returned. As baseball great Yogi Berra said, it is “déjà vu all over again.” During the Watergate scandals, we had the benefit of the special prosecutor, congressional hearings led by Sen. Sam Ervin and aggressive investigative journalism to crack through the secrecy and reveal the depths of government corruption. Such official government efforts are absent today, however, even as huge, and/or secret contributions are flowing into the 2012 presidential and congressional races. This money has the power to influence future government actions — just as huge, secret contributions were used in the Watergate era to buy government decisions. After Watergate, 20 corporations were criminally convicted for illegal campaign-finance activities. The hotel break-in itself was financed with secret campaign contributions.
Consider, ITT pledged $400,000 to help finance the 1972 Republican convention, and the Justice Department quickly settled an antitrust case in ITT’s favor. Nixon himself intervened in the case. 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. Ambassadorships were sold at six-figure prices. Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s attorney and a major campaign fundraiser, ultimately went to jail for selling an ambassadorship.
Congress passed sweeping campaign-finance reforms in response to Watergate. The legislation built on existing new disclosure laws and included limits on contributions to candidates and parties as well as a public-financing system for presidential elections. This system worked well for more than two decades and virtually all candidates used it. It became outdated in recent years though and needs to be repaired. With its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court in one day tore apart the disclosure rules, the contribution limits and even the restrictions on corporate money in federal campaigns, first enacted in 1907.