Congress has conducted investigations of malfeasance since the 1790s. In 1798 Congress authorized taking testimony under oath and established punishments for perjury. The House empowered its Committee on Manufactures "to send for persons and papers" relating to tariff legislation in 1827, and since then both houses have considered it their right to summon anyone, whether inside or outside the government, to testify. In 1857, Congress provided that reluctant witnesses could be held in contempt and tried by federal courts. Learn more below and on the Senate Historical Office page about Senate investigations.
Historically, successful Senate investigations have required a combination of persistence, diligence, expert staff, sharp questioning, good publicity, and some good luck.
During his two years as chairman on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations,
Senator Joseph McCarthy
conducted headline-grabbing inquiries into allegations of Communist subversion and espionage in the U.S. government and defense industries. Senator McCarthy’s behavior eventually led to his December 1954
for conduct unbecoming a senator. Several of the
on the Senate Historical Office web page contain discussions of Senator McCarthy; scan the transcripts for more information.