Two weeks ago in my journalism class, we watched the movie All the President’s Men, which recounts the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate scandal. After viewing the shady transactions and hidden bank accounts used to cover up Nixon’s tracks in the early 1970’s, we discussed as a class how differently the events would be able to play out today.
Someone rightfully pointed out that following Watergate, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was formed and that there were rules in place to prevent incidents like Watergate from reoccurring. But how do those rules actually work? The enforcement ability of the FEC is essentially zero, and through decisions like Citizens United and SpeechNow v FEC, corporations havefound loopholes for spending through Super PACs and 501 c(4)s. If someone wanted to carry out Watergate today, could they get away with it?
I think the answer is no, at least to a certain extent. The specific circumstances of Watergate could probably not occur in today’s world, including funds shuffled between Mexican bank accounts and the Committee to Reelect the President, but there could still be gross campaign finance violations that go unnoticed. Romney himself could donate $1 billion dollars to a 501 c(4), which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, and the 501 c(4) could give all of that money to Romney’s super PAC. It would be breaking the basic rule that super PACs should be nonconnected from candidates (and Romney would be completely funding his own campaign), but there would be little to no way of figuring out that the rule was broken because of current disclosure laws. Thecurrent FEC is also too deadlocked to enforce any rules, and it’s frustrating to believe that the agency would be unable to prevent events similar to the one that spurred its creation.
So what will it take to spark another national conversation about the necessity of campaign finance reform? Will it take someone finding out that a candidate is financing his or her own campaign? It will probably be another huge scandal before people to realize what needs to be done about our political system. Until then, more money will be flowing into politics, expenditures wont be limited, and gridlock and polarization will only increase.