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Watergate and American Political Values

Watergate provides useful material for analysing the operation of the President, Congress and Supreme Court.

It gives some idea of the interplay between the 3 arms of the American political system and of the political values underpinning the constitutional framework.

  1. Congressional committees (Senate Watergate & House Judiciary) – The operation of these committees demonstrate a fundamental difference between the Australian and American political systems. US congressional committees have much more independence and power than parliamentary committees in Australia. The inquiries undertaken by the Senate Watergate Committee were crucial in securing Nixon’s resignation. The recommendation by the Judiciary Committee to impeach the president was carried by the votes of both Democrat and Republican members.
  2. Supreme Court power over the Executive branch – The checks and balances built into the US system were demonstrated by the rulings of the Court that Nixon release the tapes of Oval Office conversations.
  3. Presidential executive power, and the White House office – Nixon claimed “executive privilege” for the White House tapes and other documents. His personal staff, particularly Haldeman and Erlichman, demonstrate the power that the White House office can exercise. Unlike Cabinet appointments, these positions are not subject to Senate confirmation.
  4. Separation of powers – No member of any of the 3 arms of the US government may belong to any of the other arms.
  5. Checks and balances – The Watergate scandal demonstrates the complex web of safeguards built into the American Constitution. On the one hand, the President is the Head of Government, but does not control the Legislature. Unlike a Westminster Prime Minister, the President cannot dissolve Congress. Whilst the President may nominate members of the Judicial arm, they require Senate approval. Similarly, the President serves a fixed 4-year term and may only be removed following an impeachment process that must begin in the House of Representatives. The President may only be removed from office by the Senate.
  6. Values of accountability and responsibility – the removal of Richard Nixon demonstrates an array of accountability processes. Whilst serving a fixed term of office, the President is accountable to the House of Representatives, the chamber that most directly reflects the most recent opinion of the nation. However, in keeping with the Federalist values of the Founding Fathers, it is only the Senate, where each state, regardless of population, is represented by two Senators, which may remove the President.
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024