The Watergate campaign finance scandals led to a landmark law designed to limit the influence of money in politics. Decades later, some say the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal.

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How Watergate and Citizens United Shaped Campaign Finance Law

Editor: Anne Checler
Update Producers: Sianne Garlick and Sandra McDaniel
Update Editor: Brian Kamerzel

The Watergate scandal exposed a network of secret fundraising and illegal campaign donations. Laws aimed at reducing financial abuses have had little or no effect on big money’s influence on politics.

After five men with ties to the Nixon campaign were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972, to plant listening devices, investigations revealed that tens of millions of dollars in illegal corporation donations had fueled his victory. Nixon resigned; the donations and the attempts to cover them up led Congress to pass the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974. But by 1988, corporate money was flowing again – to political parties, which were free to spend the donations in support of party candidates. In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which outlawed donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

Then came the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 known as Citizens United. It and subsequent decisions meant that corporations could give unlimited money to outside political groups. Critics say it reverses decades of reforms meant to fix the illegal practices of the Watergate days.

Click below for our free classroom resources showing how Watergate relates to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

The Cost of Campaigns by Clyde Haberman

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