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About Investigations | Historical Overview

Since its earliest years, Congress has exercised its power of inquiry in order to conduct oversight, inform the public, and write good legislation. Over the course of its history, Congress has conducted hundreds of investigations of not only the executive or judicial branches, but also business practices, organized crime, and civil liberties.

In 1827 the House empowered the Committee on Manufactures "to send for persons and papers" relating to tariff legislation, and since then both houses have considered it their right to summon anyone, whether inside or outside the government, to testify. In 1857 Congress asserted that reluctant witnesses could be held in contempt and tried by federal courts.

The Supreme Court in landmark cases has broadly upheld congressional powers to conduct investigations, as long as inquiries are related to subjects on which Congress can validly legislate. During the Senate investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s, the Supreme Court held in McGrain v. Daugherty (1927) that congressional committees can issue subpoenas, compel witnesses to testify, and hold them in contempt if they failed to comply. In another decision, Sinclair v. United States (1929), the Court ruled that a witness who lies before a congressional committee can be convicted of perjury.

The Senate passed a resolution to conduct its first legislative inquiry on December 14, 1859, creating the Select Committee to Inquire into the Facts of the Recent Invasion and Seizure of the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry. Since then, the Senate has increasingly recognized the importance of investigations and has expanded its powers to conduct inquiries, including subpoena power for all standing committees granted by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946.

Historically significant Senate investigations have uncovered wrongdoing, punished transgressors, and produced legislation aimed at prohibiting similar abuse in the future. 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, anti-union activity, the sale of cotton, and the Vietnam War. Perhaps the Senate’s best-known investigatory committee, the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (commonly known as the Watergate Committee), investigated alleged malfeasance by the executive branch and was instrumental in bringing about the resignation of President Richard Nixon.