The question as the Jan. 6 committee releases its final report this week is whether this is the beginning of Congress’ work — or the end. Will the work of the committee be seen like the Mueller Report, which landed with a thud on Capitol Hill and met calculated congressional indifference, or will it be treated like Watergate, as the beginning of a period of active reform?
It’s easy to forget today that perhaps the most important — and lasting — chapters of Watergate came after Richard Nixon’s final walk up the stairs of Marine One. The Watergate scandal, which has been shorthanded by history as a burglary and dirty tricks campaign, was actually a series of interrelated scandals that included Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, the death of J. Edgar Hoover and campaign finance violations — which is to say, it was very much like the legacy of Donald Trump, whose presidency was marked by a series of interrelated scandals, all of which at their core represented presidential abuses of power.
Congress realized in the wake of Watergate that as a co-equal branch of government, it had a vested interest in curbing abuses of power regardless of the president’s political party, and it moved with alacrity on a veritable Cambrian explosion of democracy reform in the 1970s.
Similarly, Congress’ investigation of 9/11 and the final report of the 9/11 Commission weren’t the end of their work, but were seen instead as the beginning of a concerted effort at sweeping intelligence reform — dozens of the commission’s 41 specific recommendations later became policy, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as well as countless other less-visible reforms aimed at enabling better information sharing within the government.
Few moments, though, equal the passion and breadth of government reform of the 1970s after Nixon. While history mostly remembers North Carolina’s Sam Ervin for his leadership of the blockbuster Senate committee hearings in the summer of 1973, some of his most important contributions came after his committee’s work wrapped up in the spring of ’74 and issued its 1,094-page report. Over the next year, Ervin led the way on a series of three major legislative reforms that fundamentally reshaped American politics — one bill sharply limited a president’s ability to “impound” funds appropriated by Congress, which had been a key (and now forgotten) part of the legislative branch’s disputes with Nixon, while another, the so-called Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, created the campaign-finance reform system that policed the nation’s candidates until recently. (Here, Watergate inspired nationwide reforms too: Forty-two states passed their own new campaign finance laws in the years immediately following the Watergate burglary.)
The third area of reform Ervin helped lead has important echoes in today’s headlines: He passed legislation that prevented Nixon from taking home (and locking away) the recordings of his infamous White House taping system — an initial step that was followed in 1978 by more thorough reform and the passage of the Presidential Records Act, which established clearly that official records were to be kept by the government and weren’t the personal property of the president to take upon leaving the White House. It’s this law, of course, that is the center of the current controversy with Trump about the classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere.
Beyond Ervin’s own efforts, there were also critical reforms to federal disclosure, ethics and civil service policies, not the least of which was the creation of the watchdog inspectors general roles across government, as well as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which made it illegal for businesses to bribe foreign officials. Congress also passed tax reforms aimed at limiting the ability of a president to weaponize the Internal Revenue Service against adversaries.
The scandals and collective horror of Watergate also helped spur other congressional investigations — including the Church and Pike Committees, which brought to light the CIA’s and FBI’s abuses of civil liberties at home and human rights overseas, and each of which subsequently drove huge efforts for reform. The modern legal system and checks-and-balances of surveillance oversight — including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) system, which requires federal warrants for eavesdropping in national security cases approved by a special classified court — as well as the very existence of the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees all came out of the Watergate era, as did the Privacy Act of 1974, which simultaneously brought greater transparency to government records while ensuring better protections for the information the government collected on ordinary Americans.
What’s been notable — and worrisome — about the scandals of the Trump years is how little the appetite for subsequent reform has been. The Jan. 6 Committee, which will surely be regarded by history as one of the most effective congressional investigations ever, stands proud in part because of how unique it’s seemed: the sole congressional effort at accountability for the Trump years. Despite Democrats holding both houses of Congress and the presidency over the last two years, there have been few other high-profile hearings and legislative reforms to address the worst abuses of the Trump presidency.
It seems likely that an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act will be passed through Congress at some point this week amid Congress’s final push of the year, and while its evidently much-needed reforms will help clarify roles and prevent a future Trump-like effort to overturn the results of the Electoral College, Congress has attempted few similar reforms.
Congress, for instance, has shown little appetite to limit presidential abuse of the so-called Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which Trump used repeatedly and widely to neuter the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the intelligence community by appointing long-serving “acting” officials to positions normally meant to be Senate-confirmed. It hasn’t sought to limit the executive pardon powers to prevent the president from dangling or granting pardons to fellow co-conspirators in a president’s own crimes, nor has it sought to require presidential nominees to release tax records, limit their ability to profit from businesses while in office, or clarify the “emoluments” clause and curb a president from receiving money from foreign governments.
Remarkably, despite the nation living through multiple “fire and fury” nuclear scares in Trump’s presidency, Congress hasn’t even seriously entertained instituting long-overdue checks-and-balances on the president’s unilateral nuclear launch authority. One of the key reforms to come out of the Watergate era was the War Powers Act, meant to prevent another open-ended war like Vietnam by limiting the president’s ability to commit troops to conflicts overseas without seeking congressional approval, and yet even 50 years later and after living through Trump’s brinkmanship with North Korea, Congress has never seriously considered instituting safeguards to ensure that the commander-in-chief double-check with any other official prior to initiating a global nuclear Armageddon.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Congress hasn’t even made basic changes that would benefit its own security in a future attack on the Capitol — including meaningful reforms to the Capitol Police that would improve its professionalism and minimize political influence or giving the D.C. mayor the authority to activate the D.C. National Guard in the same way that the nation’s other 50 governors do. As the Jan. 6 committee has shown, the White House’s refusal to engage on activating the D.C. National Guard amid the insurrection at the Capitol slowed and stymied any military effort to secure Congress that day and put the members’ own lives at risk — and yet the effort to rectify that authority, which passed the House last year, failed to be included in the compromise legislation demanded by the Senate.
And despite the violent attack on the Capitol, the vast subsequent increase of threats against senators and representatives, and an apparent attempted kidnapping of the speaker of the House that landed Paul Pelosi in the hospital, both the House and Senate have left undone numerous recommendations over the years about addressing its own continuity and ability to function amid the death or incapacitation of members of Congress.
Unfortunately, hopes for specific reforms like these — or anything else that may come out of the Jan. 6 committee’s report when it’s finally made public this week — may already be ending: The Republican takeover of the House, albeit narrow, seems all-but guaranteed to stall bicameral reforms, and many of the Jan. 6 committee’s leading members, including both of its Republican members, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, will not be returning to Congress.
That said, it’s possible that the most lasting change of the Trump years is already in place on Capitol Hill: One of the most seismic changes post-Watergate of course was the new generation of young reform-minded representatives and senators who swept into Washington — the so-called class of “Watergate Babies,” which brought nearly a hundred new members of Congress in that ’74 election. It’s possible to see some of that similar civic energy pulse into Washington in the years since Trump’s surprise 2016 victory, albeit in smaller numbers, with reform-focused members like Reps. Katie Porter and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s worth remembering how long those careers and that spirit can alter Congress: The last of the Watergate Babies, my home state’s Patrick Leahy, gave his farewell speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday and retires this month as the 117th Congress wraps up its work.