Forty years ago this month, the Senate launched its best-known inquiry when chairman Sam Ervin of North Carolina gaveled to order the first public hearing of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, commonly known as the Watergate committee. Americans watched live televised broadcasts of the hearings as senators and staff questioned the president’s closest advisors about the break-in and cover-up at the Watergate office complex and other “illegal and improper campaign practices and financing,” that occurred during the presidential campaign of 1972.
The Senate Watergate committee has been credited with reviving public confidence in congressional investigations, which had declined during the McCarthy inquiries of the 1950s. 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. Public support for the investigation remained strong even when a series of confrontations between the Watergate committee and the White House provoked a constitutional crisis.
Since its first inquiry in 1792, Congress has conducted hundreds of investigations, fulfilling a constitutional oversight responsibility while serving as the eyes and ears of the American public. Over the past two centuries the Senate has probed issues such as interstate commerce, Ku Klux Klan activities, the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, Wall Street banking practices, organized crime, antiunion activity, the sale of cotton, and the Vietnam War.
Congressional investigations, in the words of Senator Ervin, "can be the catalyst that spurs Congress and the public to support vital reforms in our nation’s laws." The Watergate investigation prompted Congress to approve a series of measures including revisions to the Federal Election Campaign Act and the Ethics in Government Act.