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Watching the Watergate Reforms Flow Away

October 04, 1987|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal.

WASHINGTON — It's business as usual in the nation's Capitol. Once, Watergate was a gaudy apartment and office complex along the Potomac River. Then, after it gained fame for spawning the worst political scandal in the nation's history, it became identified with the "post-Watergate era," marked by a zeal for honest and open government and for shared responsibility between the White House and Congress. But now those efforts to make government officials more accountable and to avoid another "Watergate" are history.

The robust drive for political reform enveloping Washington more than a decade ago has been reversed. And the broad package of laws designed to cleanse the process during the 1970s is being largely ignored and undermined. Perhaps the chief culprit is the Reagan Administration, less than a citadel of ethical purity. But responsibility extends across-the-board, to a weak Congress and to Democrats whose virtues are also often suspect.

The post-Watergate era was largely a reaction to secrecy at the highest levels in government, not only in the infamous cover-up of the burglary at the Democratic National Committee but also in more routine federal operations. It was an attempt to reverse the "imperial presidency," which had been mushrooming for several decades, and to restore a proper balance with Congress.

In some ways, the changes were symbolic: President Gerald R. Ford was photographed preparing his morning muffins and President Jimmy Carter's initial appeal was symbolic--he was an outsider who wore a sweater in a televised speech and carried his luggage through airports. Despite their shortcomings, each acted to make government more responsive to the public interest, such as restricting covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and hiring an attorney general with stronger legal credentials.

Congress passed a package of laws, not all of them directly connected to Watergate, that showed a desire for more orderly process. A series of events within the past few weeks shows how those changes, as a whole, have become a dead letter.

--In 1973, Congress enacted, over President Richard M. Nixon's veto, the War Powers Resolution, designed to avoid a repetition of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts where tens of thousands of American lives were lost without an explicit congressional decision to declare war. That law requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours after he introduces armed forces "into hostilities or into situations where imminent hostilities" are clearly indicated and, absent congressional approval, to withdraw the troops within 60 days.

When a U.S. helicopter two weeks ago attacked an Iranian vessel laying mines in the Persian Gulf, a bipartisan coalition of senators demanded that the President invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution. But Reagan rejected their demand, saying that such an action "could have disastrous effects for the U.S. commitment to the Persian Gulf." Their proproposal was dropped after a Senate filibuster.

--The 1974 Congressional Budget Act resulted from several factors, including a dispute between Congress and Nixon over his decision to "impound" money appropriated by Congress and the demand by legislative leaders for more orderly budgeting. The law has become something of a joke. Aside from the awesome deficits still mounting in the federal treasury, the budget process itself is out of kilter. Deadlines are ignored. Budget numbers are fudged. Responsibility is bucked.

The loudly trumpeted Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, enacted in 1985 to enforce deficit reduction, has also become an anachronism. As Reagan and Congress fight over a paltry few billion dollars more in taxes and less in spending, the deficit floats between $150 billion to $200 billion.

--Watergate also fueled calls for restrictions on political contributions, which were included in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act. Among the law's provisions, designed to dampen the influence of fat-cat political donors, is a $20,000 ceiling on an individual's annual contributions to a political party.

Yet the Democratic Party recently took a $1-million check from Joan B. Kroc, the result of Big Macs sold under her Golden Arches. How did Kroc and the Democrats get around the law? They claimed to use a loophole permitting the contribution to go to state parties, which are exempted from the ceiling. They failed to explain how that action was consistent with Kroc's expressed wish to reverse the growing use of military force in U.S. policy abroad.

Nor are Republicans pristine when it comes to federal campaign practices; with their bulging treasuries, they consistently seek novel ways for backers to circumvent limits on contributions to candidates.

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