Congressional Immunity

April 25, 1952

Report Outline
Role of Immunity in Democratic Government
Extension and Abuse of Free-Speech Privilege
Control of Immunity Abuses in Congress

Role of Immunity in Democratic Government

Frees Use by United States senators and representatives of the right to speak their minds in congressional debates and committee proceedings without fear of legal reprisal by persons who may be defamed has raised difficult questions for responsible members of Congress and the federal courts. The protection afforded to legislators by the Constitution's guarantee of immunity from suits for slander has been extended over the years to a variety of situations which could hardly have been envisioned by the founding fathers. The basic problem presented by the expanded coverage and recent abuses of congressional immunity is whether the special free-speech privilege can now be restricted without impairing-a constitutional grant which is recognized as essential to the processes of democratic government.

A resolution at present awaiting final action by the Senate Rules Committee looks to censure or expulsion of Sen. McCarthy (R., Wis.) for offenses alleged in the resolution, most of which could not have developed without the protection of congressional immunity. When the author of the resolution, Sen. Benton (D., Conn.), offered to waive immunity so that he could be held accountable for his charges in the courts, McCarthy filed a $2 million damage suit. Also pending in the courts is a suit against McCarthy by Drew Pearson, columnist and radio commentator, in which damages are asked for conspiracy to defame. Among the important questions that may be decided in the case of McCarthy v, Benton is whether a senator can waive for himself a privilege which is granted by the Constitution to the Congress as a whole.

Search for Means of Controlling Excesses

Prior to introduction of the pending Benton resolution, two Senate subcommittees had considered charges of abuse of privilege growing out of earlier activities by Sen. McCarthy. The Foreign Relations subcommittee which held hearings under the chairmanship of Tydings (D., Md.) on McCarthy's original accusations against the State Department recommended, July 17, 1951, that the two houses set up a joint committee to make a careful study of the operation of congressional immunity and draw up legislation “to preserve this immunity without prejudice to the historic and necessary reasons therefor and at the same time insure that it does not become a shield to perpetuate injustice and fraud”.

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Feb. 18, 2011  Lies and Politics
Apr. 30, 2010  Gridlock in Washington
Jun. 22, 2007  Prosecutors and Politics
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May 07, 1999  Independent Counsels Re-Examined
Feb. 21, 1997  Independent Counsels
May 27, 1994  Political Scandals
Apr. 06, 1979  Assassinations Investigation
Dec. 05, 1973  Presidential Impeachment
May 16, 1973  Ethics in Government
May 10, 1961  Secret Societies and Political Action
Jun. 29, 1960  Conflicts of Interest
Oct. 26, 1955  Businessmen in Government
Apr. 07, 1954  Fair Investigations
Apr. 25, 1952  Congressional Immunity
Dec. 05, 1951  Ethics in Government
Jan. 28, 1948  Individual Rights and Congressional Investigations
Jul. 02, 1934  Political Reform and Federal Patronage
Mar. 07, 1924  Congressional Extravagance and the Budget
Nov. 12, 1923  Issues Developed in the Teapot Dome Inquiry
Freedom of Speech and Press
Investigations and Discipline