At a conference today in Washington commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, one of the main sponsors of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law lamented that "there is a cancer on our democracy and on our economy because of the Citizens United decision."
Speaking at the two-day program at the National Press Club, entitled "The Lessons of Watergate," former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said the central issue of our time is the role of money in politics and the "disastrous result" of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in which the court found that the First Amendment disallowed the government from restricting campaign donations to corporations or labor unions. The conference was sponsored by the Common Cause Education Fund.
"Most people think about Watergate as this huge political scandal and that's the thing we remember most," said Feingold, who founded a group called Progressives United after leaving the Senate in 2011. Actually, he said, "it's about the fact that people who cared about the issues of the time turned that scandal into the major campaign finance reform law that was a foundation for 50 years of our campaign finance system."
"It's not about hating corporations," Feingold said, "it's about the fact that only in the last three years in any of our lifetime has it been the case that when you buy a gallon of gas or a tube of toothpaste, that money can now be used…for candidates that you hate or against the candidate you support."
Feingold said the huge amount of money spent by candidates on media firms and D.C.-based consultants "is one of the most inefficient, inappropriate uses of resources in our society." The victims are not only young people, such as those who donated small amounts of money to President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, he said, but also corporations and wealthy people who are subjected to pressure to fund these media efforts. "There's no such thing as a free ten million dollar contribution."
"Forty years ago, probably the most memorable phrase of Watergate was from John Dean: 'There is a cancer on the White House,'" Feingold said. "I submit that there is a cancer on our democracy and on our economy because of the Citizens United decision."
In a panel discussion earlier in the day, former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, said that 40 years ago, bipartisanship was key to exposing wrongdoing in President Richard Nixon's administration.
"It was the worst of times in the sense of presidential abuse and the best of times because we saw our institutions work," Holtzman said. "In the end, people rose past party, past tradition, past narrow ideology to do what was right for the country." Holtzman said she did not think any Democrat took any pleasure in voting for the impeachment of Nixon.
Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst and co-author of The Pentagon Papers, said the repercussions of Watergate and the abuse of presidential power are visible on today's politics. He referred both to former President George W. Bush's administration after 9/11, and the decision of President Barack Obama's administration to be involved in the attack on Libya, Ellsberg said, "the president thinks he is above the law when it comes to what is necessary to do for the United States' safety."