Opinion | Why Watergate-era campaign finance laws have failed

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Ellen L. Weintraub is a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission.

The burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex 50 years ago sparked coverups, investigations, constitutional crises, a presidential resignation, deep damage to Americans’ faith in government and a raft of bipartisan legislation aimed at restoring that faith. One of those laws created a small federal agency to “follow the money,” the Federal Election Commission, where I serve.

Those laws also triggered an almost immediate backlash at the Supreme Court, beginning with its Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976 and accelerating in recent years. The court’s decision last month in FEC v. Ted Cruz for Senate, which allows donors to slip money directly into an elected official’s pocket, is the latest outrage, but likely not the last.

The Watergate players’ actions were brazenly corrupt. When President Richard M. Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, told him that money would be needed to pay off the Watergate burglars’ blackmail demands, Nixon replied, “You could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. I mean, it’s not easy, but it could be done.”

It is still shocking to hear a president plotting to raise hush money to cover up political crimes. But the amounts involved seem almost quaint compared with the mammoth sums now flowing into American…

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