The idea of checks and balances was an idea that arose during the composition of the U.S. Constitution. Checks and balances were created so that no one single branch of government (which includes legislative, judiciary, and executive) would become too powerful. This concept prevents a tyranny from controlling the United States, or any illegal activities to take place within the government. One key example of the power the judiciary and legislative branches have over the executive branch is the Watergate Scandal.
The Watergate Scandal is a prime example of how theses checks and balances come into play. Also, the events of Watergate show how even the president (executive branch) is answerable to the judicial and legislative branches. Though Nixon had many strong characteristics of a successful leader, “Nixon’s public actions were nothing compared to what he had done to ensure his re-election.” (Carnes, and Garraty 640) “In reaction to Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers (papers that talked about how the American Government had misled the American people on the progress in Vietnam), Nixon set up a secret unit called “the plumbers”. This group was ordered to carry out various illegal activities in the name of “national security””.
On June 17, 1972 five men were arrested at 2:30a.m, Bernard Barker, Virgilio González, Eugenio Martinez, James W. McCord Jr., and Frank Sturgis. These men were hired and or ordered to set up recording devices in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. At their arrest “Police discovered walkie-talkies, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35-milimeter cameras, lock picks, tear gas, and bugging devices that apparently were capable of picking up both telephone and room conversations” (Bernstein, and Woodward ). When the hearing of these men finally took place, things began to unfold. When asked, each of the men revealed some connection to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The men were “hired hands, on call to take care of the agency’s “less tasteful work” ”. This obviously raised some eyebrows in other areas of the government, but Nixon told the White House press secretary to dismiss the incident as a third-rate burglary. This, although did not stop reporters from investigating further, in fact, the statement only made reporters like Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein pursue the truth of the matter further.
What was Watergate? That was the question reporters were asking. No one quite knew what it was. Some took the president’s word, and simply dismissed it as a third-rate burglary. Others, like the famous Woodward and Bernstein pursued the truth of the burglary. At the arrest, two of the five men involved in the break-in, had an address book that “contained the name and phone number of a Howard E. Hunt, with small notations “W. House” and “W.H” ” (Bernstein, and Woodward ). Now the question had been raised; what business did members of the CIA, specializing in bugging, have with the Whitehouse? As the reporter’s investigation continued, they found, through FBI sources, that the Whitehouse had taken over possession of the Watergate investigation files. The whole scandal was falling apart, and the truth was becoming clearer in the eyes of the media and more importantly the eyes of the American people. The scandal had become so shocking, that the legislative and judiciary branches felt a pressing need to step in, and take control of the executive branch.
As more revelations occurred, the other branches of the government became more and more involved in the investigative process. As the investigation continued, it was revealed that Nixon had installed a taping system in the Whitehouse, to record all conversations that took place. After this revelation, it became a certain urgency to get a hold of the tapes. After all, if Nixon or any other Whitehouse official was involved in the Watergate scandal, then their voices would be on the tape, if not then they would be free of conviction.
The Nixon tapes were under fire, the prosecution needed to get their hands on it. The tapes were declared significant for the grand jury’s criminal investigation. This was the first time anyone had ever subpoenaed the president, and Nixon received two on the same day. He got one from the committee and one from the prosecutor, Archibald Cox (Emery 576). At this point, Nixon was claiming that neither Congress, nor Cox had the right to demand evidence from the executive branch, and said it was “vital to national security”. Nixon’s refusal to hand the tapes over, forced the Senate Committee to come up with a way of forcing Nixon to hand the tapes over. After all, Nixon controlled the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Armed Forces.
Nixon’s position as president started to cause problems, for the Senate. They had come to realize that they were at a stand still and Nixon had the upper hand. His apparent control over major parts of the government was becoming a hindrance. The committee was desperate for a plan to obtain the recorded tapes, and a solution was finally given by the prosecution.
The plan was to “sue for the tapes in federal court”. The Senate Committee agreed to this solution and helped the prosecution follow through. The lawsuit went to the same judge as the one who was overseeing the Watergate trial. The judge “charged the president to turn over the tapes to the prosecutor” (Emery 576). The Whitehouse appealed to the Federal Court of appeals. The court ruled in favor of the judge, and demanded the tapes out of Nixon. This enraged Nixon; after all, Cox was an employee of the executive branch, and was challenging his authority. Thus, Nixon ordered the Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. He refused and resigned. Nixon then asked the deputy to fire Cox. The deputy also resigned. Nixon finally asked a third-ranking Justice Department official to fire Cox, and become the new Attorney General. He agreed. This incident was called “The Saturday Massacre”. This brought a lot of pressure down on Nixon; he therefore agreed to appoint a new prosecutor. The prosecutor was Leon Jaworski. The prosecutor agreed under the condition that Nixon could not fire him.
So, as the trial continued, the tapes were examined and as a result an alarming discovery was made. There was an 18-minute gap in one of the tapes (Emery 576). “Prosecutor Jaworski demanded that the Whitehouse turn over 69 more tapes. Once again the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to supply the subpoenaed tapes” (Emery 576). On July 27th- 30th, the Judiciary Committee suggested that Nixon be impeached on three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential power, and trying to hinder the impeachment process by defying committee subpoenas. The committee voted on his impeachment, and the vote went against him. Therefore Nixon had to stand trial before the U.S Senate and was found guilty.
In the aftermath, the Whitehouse released a transcript of the tapes. In it, there was a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman (Nixon’s chief of staff). Nixon told Haldeman to cease the FBI’s investigation of Watergate. This “made it clear that Nixon was involved in the cover-up from the beginning” (Emery 576). At nine-o’clock on August 8, 1974 Nixon made his last speech as president. He only admitted to losing the two branches’ support. At noon, the Vice-president, Gerald R. Ford, was inaugurated. He told the American people in his speech that “…our long national nightmare is over” (Emery 576) “President Ford insisted he had no intention of pardoning Nixon” (Brown Tindall, and Emory Shi 1264). But on September 1974, Ford issued the pardon to Nixon, explaining that this was necessary to end the national obsession (especially by the media) with Watergate.
Following the Watergate Scandal, Congress legislature limited the actual input any president had in external affairs. The War Powers Act (1973) “requires a president to inform Congress within forty-eight hours if U.S. troops are deployed in combat abroad and to withdraw troops after sixty days unless Congress specifically approves their stay” (Brown Tindall, and Emory Shi 1264). Congress also had a reaction to Nixon’s “executive privileges” by strengthening the 1966 Freedom of Information Act. By the end of 1975, amendments to the Freedom of Information Act had become effective and the Privacy Act of 1974 also became effective. “The passage of these laws provided for broad access to FBI records which previously had been severely limited. In the past twenty plus years, the FBI has handled over 300,000 requests and over six million pages of FBI documents have been released to the public in paper format.” (Freedom of Information Act (USA)).
The Watergate Scandal, and the parties involved played a key factor in the shaping of the executive branch that we have today. Limitations and guidelines have been set; there is no longer a threat of the pushing of boundaries by the president, his appointed cabinet, or the federal agencies that are in direct control of the executive branch. Although these acts of legislation have limited the executive branch, they have not hindered the job of the presidency in anyway. As you can see, checks and balances have been a key focal point from the creation of American democracy. Therefore we must trust the other branches of our government to do their jobs and look out for the safety of our country and exercise their power of maintaining the balance of powers.