Early on the morning of June 17, 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C. A security guard alerted the metro police, who arrested the burglars, who carried more than $3,500 in cash and high-end surveillance and electronic equipment.
While the burglars awaited their arraignment in federal district court, the FBI launched an investigation of the incident. The dogged reporting of two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, raised questions and suggested connections between President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign and the men awaiting trial in federal district court. The White House denied any connection to the break-in and in November 1972 Nixon won reelection in a landslide.
On February 5, 1973, Sen. Edward Kennedy offered Senate Resolution 60 to establish a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate campaign activities related to the Presidential Election of 1972. Traditionally, the sponsor presides over the inquiry. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wanted to avoid the possibility that the committee would seem unduly partisan because of Kennedy’s presidential aspirations, and instead offered the chair to Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina.
Several factors contributed to the committee’s overall success including extensive media coverage, sustained public interest, the meticulous work of investigators, the cooperation of key witnesses, and the continuing support of the full Senate.
Throughout the inquiry Nixon rebuffed the committee’s requests for access to information. Claiming a constitutional separation of powers, he refused to allow his aides to testify. Ervin insisted that executive privilege could not be extended to cover criminal behavior and he threatened to authorize the sergeant at arms to arrest White House aides who refused to testify.
Conceding to public pressure, the president allowed his aides to cooperate but continued to deny the committee access to presidential papers. Nixon repeatedly declared that he knew nothing about the Watergate burglary, but one former aide testified that the president had approved plans to cover up White House connections to the break-in. Another aide revealed that the president maintained a voice-activated tape recorder system in various rooms in the White House.
Ervin requested access to the tapes, believing that they would either corroborate or repudiate testimony that the president had knowledge of, and approved efforts to cover up, the Watergate break-in. Senate Resolution 194 authorized the committee to “issue subpoenas for documents, tapes…"
Nixon refused to comply, citing executive privilege and separation of powers. Ervin rebutted that “the Select Committee is exercising a constitutional power of the Senate to conduct this investigation, and the doctrine of separation of powers of government requires the president to recognize this and to refrain from obstructing the committee.”
President Nixon complied and the recordings revealed that he had approved a plan to cover up the White House connection to the Watergate burglary. Based on this evidence, the House Judiciary Committee adopted three articles of impeachment. Before the full House could vote, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
The Senate Watergate investigation remains one of the most significant congressional inquiries in U.S. history. Over the course of this 16-month investigation committee members maintained bipartisan accord, garnered public support, and expanded congressional investigatory powers to produce lasting legislative reform.