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COLUMN ONE : Watergate: Lessons of a Scandal : The expose that upset American politics in the 1970s inspired many reform laws. After 20 years, few of them still have teeth.


Congress was emboldened by the election of more than 80 reform-minded Democrats in November, 1974, most of them liberals from districts that had been represented by Republicans. These so-called "Watergate babies" saw it as their mission both to rein in the executive branch and to democratize the Congress.

The post-Watergate Congress enacted the War Powers Act, designed to prevent future presidents from waging undeclared wars, such as that in Vietnam; the Budget and Impoundment Act, which was to give Congress more control over federal spending decisions; revisions to the Freedom of Information Act designed to improve access to executive branch materials; the Privacy Act, which permitted Americans to see information in federal agency files on themselves, and the Hughes-Ryan Amendment, requiring the President to report all covert operations to Congress.

Yet in subsequent years, members of Congress have been disappointed with the results of their post-Watergate efforts to hold sway over the President. In many cases the intended reforms fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. In other ways, they simply were ineffective.

Reagan's military adventures in Lebanon and Grenada, as well as President Bush's deployment of forces to Panama and the Persian Gulf, demonstrated that the President still has broad powers to decide when Americans will be sent to war. The War Powers Act proved virtually useless to Congress in restraining the President in times of world crisis.

In addition, the decision-making process established under the Budget and Impoundment Act has been blamed for contributing to political stalemate and the rising deficit. Intended as a response to Nixon's refusal to spend money appropriated by Congress, the law created the highly complex spending system involving House and Senate budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office. It also gave rise to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law and the proposed balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The Reagan Administration's selling weapons to Iran without notifying Congress--the event that precipitated the Iran-Contra scandal--was seen as proof that the legislative branch had once again lost the battle to keep a tight rein on U.S. covert activities abroad.

In the years just after Watergate, Congress often appeared to have the upper hand over Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. By the time Reagan replaced Carter in 1980, it appeared that the public was once again longing for a more assertive leader who could serve as a symbol of national strength.

"Ronald Reagan restored a certain luster to the presidency," Kutler said. "For a lot of people, the government of the United States is the President."

As members of Congress felt their power over the executive branch ebbing, frustration replaced the enthusiasm they had had for governing in the 1970s. In the words of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a former Watergate baby: "Now we have a stalemated government, rather than an imperial presidency,"

In order to democratize Congress, the Watergate babies' first task was to abolish some of the most potent advantages of the seniority system. Beginning in January, 1975, even the most senior committee chairmen could not keep those positions without the approval of the party caucus. Three powerful chairmen from the South--Wright Patman (D-Tex.) of Banking, F. Edward Hebert (D-La.) of Armed Services, and W. R. Poage (D-Tex.) of Agriculture--were toppled immediately.

For a time, it appeared that a new breed of politician would permanently rewrite the rules on Capitol Hill. Then the Watergate babies grew up. Today, many of them are powerful committee chairmen, such as Waxman, who heads the subcommittee on Health and Environment, and George Miller (D-Martinez), who chairs the Interior Committee, and Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) of the Surface Transportation subcommittee.

These former Watergate babies now are the targets of frustrated citizens who seek to use term-limit initiatives to oust them from office and blame them for failing to solve the nation's problems.

Indeed, some members of that class of 1974 proved to be every bit as conventional as their predecessors. Rep. Carroll Hubbard Jr. (D-Ky.), for example, elected president of his freshman congressional class and now chairman of the House Banking subcommittee on oversight and investigations, was recently defeated in the Kentucky Democratic primary after 17 years in Congress by voters who, among other things, objected to his close ties to the thrift industry.

Inevitably, the politics of scandal also caught up with the post-Watergate reformers. Many of the changes they put in place to guarantee integrity in government are now being blamed for inadvertently weakening the political system--especially the laws governing campaign finances.

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