Holding the Government Accountable

Lessons of Watergate Scandal Still Resonate

Earlier this week, Project On Government Oversight Executive Director, Danielle Brian participated on a panel about the “Lessons of Watergate” at the National Press Club. She was joined by Joan Claybrook, former president of Public Citizen, Don Simon, former general counsel and acting president of Common Cause, and Lawrence Noble, president and CEO of Americans for Campaign Reform. The panel discussed open government and campaign reform since the Watergate scandal.

Over the last 40 years, the Watergate scandal has been dissected every which way—movies have been made, books written, articles printed and accusations investigated. And while it may seem that there is nothing left to talk about, the lessons learned from Watergate continue to shape our politics and legislation to this day.

Although the panel discussed campaign finance reform sparked by Watergate, Brian focused on the improvements in transparency and openness in government since the scandal. These changes include the 1975 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). One of those amendments required a judicial review of every executive claim to secrecy.

The Inspector General Act of 1978, passed four years after President Nixon’s resignation, created the offices of Inspectors General at all federal agencies. The inspectors general investigate fraud, waste, misconduct, and abuse within their designated agency.

And in 1989, 15 years after Watergate, Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act, which aims to protect government employees who come forward with information pertaining to misconduct, fraud, waste and abuse.

Although the progress that has been made toward open government is commendable, many of the changes made since Watergate are not working as intended:

  • Agencies are slow to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Agency officials often refuse to release information under the claim that the information should be kept secret to protect national security. These agencies need respond to FOIA requests quicker and should bring themselves in line with President Obama’s declared policy of starting a presumption in favor of disclosure.
  • There is a high turn-over rate for Inspectors General who bring issues of fraud and abuse to the public. Currently, eight positions remain unfilled. The State Department has been without an inspector general for five years and the Department of the Interior has been without one for four years.
  • The original Whistleblowers Protection Act left open many loopholes and a number of court rulings have left whistleblowers with even fewer protections. Last year, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act closed most of the loopholes but failed to protect those employees who work in the intelligence community. Those employees are in dire need of protections because of the sensitive information that they are privy to.

Although Watergate led to changes and more openness in the government, there are still too many cases of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in the government for comfort.