The authority of Congress to investigate is an implied
constitutional power. James Madison anticipated the significance
of congressional inquiry in Federalist 51
when he urged: "In framing a government which is to be
administered by men over men. . .you must first enable the
government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige
it to control itself." Congress has exercised its investigative
responsibility since the earliest days of the republic. Today
congressional oversight enables House and Senate members to
serve as the eyes and ears of the American public.
Congressional investigations date back to 1792 when the House
passed a resolution to examine
the disastrous St. Clair expedition. Since then Congress has
conducted hundreds of investigations. Noteworthy inquiries have
required a combination of persistence, thoroughness, expert
staff, sharp questioning, good publicity, and some luck.
Successful investigators diligently conduct background research
and have been shrewd in evaluating evidence and in questioning
witnesses. The very best have managed to achieve a level of
bipartisanship to maintain credibility. Particularly during the
second half of the 20th century, senators and their committee
staff have honed their public relations skills to attract press
coverage and hold public attention. Historically significant
Senate investigations have uncovered wrongdoing, have punished
transgressors, and have produced legislation aimed at
prohibiting similar abuse in the future.
Congressional investigations have not been confined to oversight
of the executive or judicial branches though that has often been
the focus of past inquiries. Congress may investigate anything
related to the development of public policy. Since its earliest
investigations, Congress has availed itself of the power of
inquiry in order to inform the public and to write good
legislation. 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. Perhaps the
Senate's best-known investigatory committee, the Select
Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (commonly known as
Watergate Committee), investigated alleged malfeasance in the executive branch and
was instrumental in bringing about the resignation of President
Each house of Congress governs its committee
investigations through authorizing or enabling resolutions,
which define the scope of the inquiry and identify the
anticipated result. Many investigations are performed by
select or special committees, established to probe a
particular issue, report on it, and make policy
recommendations based on that report. Committee members may
inquire into those issues that are relevant to the subject
under investigation. In the case of temporary committees,
members generally set their own procedural rules based on
the majority vote of committee members.
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 provided that reluctant witnesses could be held in
and tried by federal courts. 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 Harper's 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.
Two processes have threatened Congress' investigatory
power: the executive branch's refusal to cooperate with
inquiries and the perception that committees have
overstepped their constitutional authority. In 1881 the
Supreme Court decided, in
Kilbourn v. Thompson, that a House investigation into the bankruptcy of Jay
Cooke and Company had exceeded its authority because no
clear legislation could result from the inquiry. Generally,
however, the courts have broadly construed congressional
powers to conduct investigations. During the Senate
investigation of the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s the
Supreme Court held in
McGrain v. Daugherty
(1927), that congressional committees could issue subpoenas,
could compel witnesses to testify, and could hold them in
contempt if they failed to comply. In a second decision,
Sinclair v. United States
(1929), the Court ruled that a witness who lies before a
congressional committee can be convicted of perjury.
Investigations, in the words of Senator Sam Ervin,
chairman of the Watergate Committee, "can be the catalyst
that spurs Congress and the public to support vital reforms
in our nation's laws." He cautioned, however, that
probes may also "afford a platform for demagogues and the
rankest partisans." Despite these challenges, investigations
remain a critical tool for legislators to formulate laws and
inform public opinion.
Senate Investigations: A Selected List
1859-1860 Select Committee to Inquire into the Facts of
the Recent Invasion and Seizure of the United States
Armory at Harper's Ferry
(The Harper's Ferry Inquiry)
Resolution passed: December 15, 1859. Report: June
Chairman: James Murray Mason (D-VA)
Investigation of John Brown's raid on the arsenal at
Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
1861-1865 Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War
Resolution passed: December 10, 1861. Report: May 22,
Chairman: Senator Benjamin Wade (R-OH)
Investigation of the executive branch's conduct of
the Civil War.
1871-1873 Select Committee to Investigate Alleged
Outrages in the Southern States
Resolution passed: January 19, 1871. Terminated:
March 12, 1873.
Chairman: John Scott (R-PA)
Investigation of Ku Klux Klan activities in North
1885-1886 Select Committee to Investigate Interstate
Resolution passed: March 17, 1885. Report: January
Chairman: Shelby Cullom (R-IL)
Investigation of railroad and water interstate
transportation regulation; led to 1887 passage of Interstate
1912 Senate Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee Hearings
(Titanic Disaster Investigation)
Hearings: April 18, 19, 22, 1912. Report: May 28,
Chairman: William Alden Smith (R-MI)
Investigation of the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic.
1912 Committee on Privileges and Elections, Subcommittee
(The Clapp Committee)
Resolution passed: April 27, 1912. Hearings: June,
Chairman: Moses E. Clapp (R-MN)
Investigation of campaign contributions during the
presidential elections of 1904 and 1908.
1913-1917 Senate Committee on the Judiciary Special Lobby
Hearings: June to September 1913, January to July
1914. Report July 16. 1917.
Chairman: Charles A. Culberson (D-TX)
Investigation of alleged lobbying activities in
Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
1923-1924 Committee on Public Lands and Surveys
(The Teapot Dome Investigation)
Hearings: October 22, 1923 to May 14, 1924. Report:
June 6, 1924.
Chairman: Thomas J. Walsh (D-MT)
Investigation of government oil reserves in Wyoming
leased to oilmen and developers.
1932-1934 Committee on Banking and Currency
Investigation of Wall Street
(The Pecora Wall Street Expose)
Hearings: April 11, 1932 to May 4, 1934.
Chairman: Peter Norbeck (R-SD), 1932-1933; Duncan U.
Fletcher (D-FL), 1933-1936
Investigation of Wall Street banking and stock
exchange practices; led to passage of the Securities Act of
1933, the Banking Act of 1933, and the Securities Exchange
Act of 1934.
1933 Special Committee to Investigate Air Mail and
Ocean Mail Contracts
Resolution passed: February 25, 1933. Terminated:
June 30, 1936.
Chairman: Hugo Black (D-AL)
Investigation into use of government mail subsidies;
led to passage of Air Mail Act of 1933.
1934-1936 Special Committee Investigating the Munitions
(The Nye Munitions Committee)
Hearings: September 1934 to February 1936.
Chairman: Gerald R. Nye (R-ND)
Investigation of the manufacturing and sale of
munitions and the economic circumstances of U.S. entry into
World War I.
1935-1938 Special Committee to Investigate Lobbying
(Public Utility Companies Investigation)
Resolution passed: July 11, 1935. Terminated: June
Chairman: Hugo Black (D-AL), 1935-1937; Sherman
Minton (D-IN), 1937-1938
Investigation of public utility company lobbyists.
1936-1940 Education and Labor Committee, Subcommittee on
(Senate Civil Liberties Committee)
Hearings: April 10, 1936 to July 1, 1940.
Chairman: Robert M. La Follette, Jr. (R-WI)
Investigation of antiunion practices.
1941-1948 Special Committee to Investigate the
National Defense Program
(The Truman Committee)
Resolution passed: March 1, 1941. Last hearing:
November 22, 1948.
Chairman: Harry S. Truman (D-MO), 1941-1945; James M.
Mead (D-NY), 1945-1947; Owen Brewster (R-ME), 1947-1948
Investigation of defense contracts.
1945-1946 Joint Committee on the Investigation of
the Pearl Harbor Attack
(Pearl Harbor Committee)
Hearings: November 1945 to May 1946.
Chairman: Alben Barkley (D-KY)
Investigation of the attack at Pearl Harbor.
1949 Committee on Expenditures in the Executive
Departments, Investigations Subcommittee
("Five Percenters" Investigation)
Hearings: August 8 to 26, 1949. Report: January 18,
Chairman: Clyde R. Hoey (D-NC)
Investigation of influence peddling in defense
1950 Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee
Investigation of Charges by Senator McCarthy
(The Tydings Committee)
Hearings: March 8 to June 28, 1950. Report: July 20,
Chairman: Millard E. Tydings (D-MD)
Investigation of alleged disloyalty by State
1950-1951 Special Committee to Investigate Organized
Crime in Interstate Commerce
(The Kefauver Committee)
Resolution passed: May 3, 1950. Report: August 31,
Chairman: Estes Kefauver (D-TN), 1950-1951; Herbert
R. O'Conor (D-MD), 1951
An investigation of organized crime in America. Many
of the hearings were broadcast nationally on television.
1951 Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on
Foreign Relations Inquiry into MacArthur Dismissal
(The MacArthur Inquiry)
Hearings: May 3 to June 27, 1951.
Chairman: Richard Russell (D-GA)
Investigation of the dismissal of General of the Army
Douglas MacArthur and of U.S. policy in the Far East.
1953-1954 Senate Committee on Government Operations,
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
(The McCarthy Hearings)
and (The Army-McCarthy Hearings)
The investigations by this subcommittee can be
divided into two distinct phases. The first consisted of a
series of hearings conducted by Joseph McCarthy throughout
1953 regarding alleged Communist influence on the press and
on government, including "The Voice of America," the State
Department's overseas information centers, and the U.S.
Report: January 25, 1954.
Chairman: Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI)
The second phase involved the committee's
investigation of Senator McCarthy's attacks on the army.
These hearings were broadcast on national television.
Hearings: April 22 to June 17, 1954. Report: August
Acting Chairman: Karl E. Mundt (R-SD)
1957-1960 Select Committee on Improper Activities in
(Labor Racketeering Investigation)
Resolution passed: January 30, 1957. Report: March
Chairman: John L. McClellan (D-AR)
Investigation into corruption in the labor or
management field, including in the Teamsters union. The
committee heard from more than 1,500 witnesses over 270 days
1964 Rules and Administration Committee
(Bobby Baker Case)
Hearings: October and December 1963; February,
October, December, 1964. Report: July 8, 1964.
Chairman: B. Everett Jordan (D-NC)
Investigation of conflicts of interest and financial
improprieties engaged in by Baker, who served as secretary
to the majority until he resigned on October 7, 1963.
1973-1974 Select Committee on Presidential Campaign
(The Watergate Committee)
Resolution passed: February 7, 1973. Report: June 27,
Chairman: Samuel Ervin (D-NC)
Investigation of possible corruption in the 1972
presidential election campaign.
1975 Select Committee to Study Governmental
Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities
Resolution passed: January 27, 1975. Report: April
Chairman: Frank F. Church (D-ID)
Investigation into abuse of power in
intelligence-gathering by CIA and the FBI.
1987-1989 Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance
to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition
Hearings: May 5 to August 3, 1987. Report: November
Chairman: Daniel Inouye (D-HI)
Investigation into alleged covert sales of military
equipment to Iran and diversion of the proceeds to aid the
Senate Investigations: A Selected List