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Lesson Plan

How Watergate and Citizens United Shaped Campaign Finance Law

About this Video
This 13-minute video is useful for any lesson that introduces students to the Watergate scandal, and any lesson focused on the constitutional and political challenges that complicate the regulation of campaign contributions. After clarifying the connection between the Watergate break-in and subsequent campaign finance scandal, the video documents how campaign finance regulations created in the wake of Watergate would eventually be manipulated by donors seeking to convert money into political influence. The video helps students make the connection between the history of Watergate and current controversies surrounding campaign finance, and to see how, after decades of attempted reforms, the United States is once again experiencing the same unregulated flow of campaign cash that helped give rise to the issues in the 1970s.
  • How the Watergate scandal related to the regulation of campaign finance.
  • How activists and policy makers sought to reform the nation’s campaign finance system in the wake of Watergate, but were unable to sustain their reforms.
  • How the Citizens United Supreme Court case has affected the regulation of campaign finance.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • Civics & Government
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Richard Nixon
  • Watergate
  • 1970s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

After five men with ties to the Nixon campaign were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 to plant listening devices, other allegations against the Nixon campaign were investigated. This included the fact that tens of millions of dollars in illegal, secret, corporation donations had fueled President Richard M. Nixon’s sweeping victory in the 1972 election.

Nixon resigned; the donations and the attempts to cover them up led Congress to pass the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974.

The law targeted the Nixon campaign’s financial abuses by strictly limiting how much an individual could give to a candidate, mandating tough reporting regulations, and banning corporate donations.

But every law has loopholes. By the 1988 presidential election, corporate money was flowing again – not to candidates, but to political parties, which were free to spend the donations in support of party candidates.

That was perfectly legal until public outrage rose again, and Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002, which outlawed these so-called “soft money” donations from corporations, unions and the individually wealthy.

Then came the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 known as Citizens United. It and subsequent decisions meant that while there were still limits on giving directly to candidates and parties, individuals and corporations could now give unlimited money to outside political groups. Critics say it meant a return to the days before the Watergate scandal.

Essential Questions
  • How was the Watergate scandal related to the lack of effective rules for campaign finance?
  • What changes in campaign finance followed Watergate, and how effective were they?
  • How has the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United affected the regulation of campaign finance?
Lesson Procedure
  • What is the difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution?
  • Should a campaign contribution be considered the kind of political speech that is protected by the First Amendment?
  • Should corporations be given the same rights under the First Amendment as individual citizens?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "How Watergate and Citizens United Shaped Campaign Finance Law" Retro Report
“The Cost of Campaigns” Retro Report
Audio Interview: "It Could Take Another Watergate to Get Secret Money Out of Politics" WNYC

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.

Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development is situated within a broader historical context.

Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE)

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