The Senate's Power of Investigation

December 16, 1926

Report Outline
Daugherty and Sinclair Contempt Cases
British, Colonial and State Precedents
Investigations by the House and Senate
Executive Resistance to Legislative Inquiries

Although not expressly granted by the Constitution, broad powers of investigation have been exercised by Congress, dating almost from the establishment of the federal government. The first investigation by a congressional committee “empowered to call for such persons, papers and records as may be necessary to assist their inquiries” was ordered by the House of Representatives in 1792. During the early years all of the more important investigations were conducted by committees of the lower house. In recent years the Senate has more and more assumed the functions of a grand inquest of the nation.

Notwithstanding the absence of any express constitutional authority, the power of either the House or the Senate to order investigations into any matter of public interest or concern, and to compel the submission of evidence before its committees of inquiry, has seldom been questioned in the courts. In two pending cases, however, sweeping challenges to the inquisitorial authority of the legislative branch are offered, which, if sustained by the Supreme Court of the United States, will definitely restrict for the future the practically unlimited powers of investigation heretofore exercised by the legislative branch.

Judicial Powers of Legislative Branch

At the basis of any effective power of investigation there must be authority to punish unwilling or untruthful witnesses for contempt. Such authority is not specifically conferred upon Congress by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has held, however, that the power to punish contumacious witnesses is necessarily implied in those provisions of the Constitution which entrust specific judicial functions to the two houses, and may therefore be employed in proceedings in discharge of those functions.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Jan. 29, 1988  Treaty Ratification
Mar. 27, 1987  Bicentennial of the Constitution
Jan. 31, 1986  Constitution Debate Renewed
Mar. 16, 1979  Calls for Constitutional Conventions
Jul. 04, 1976  Appraising the American Revolution
Sep. 12, 1973  Separation of Powers
Jul. 12, 1972  Treaty Ratification
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Mar. 05, 1947  Contempt of Congress
May 10, 1945  The Tariff Power
Jul. 01, 1943  Executive Agreements
Jun. 01, 1943  Advice and Consent of the Senate
May 24, 1943  Modernization of Congress
Jan. 18, 1943  The Treaty Power
Aug. 24, 1942  Congress and the Conduct of War
May 09, 1940  Congressional Powers of Inquiry
Nov. 09, 1939  Participation by Congress in Control of Foreign Policy
Apr. 21, 1937  Revision of the Constitution
Feb. 24, 1936  Advance Opinions on Constitutional Questions
Oct. 04, 1935  Federal Powers Under the Commerce Clause
Jun. 19, 1935  The President, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court
Sep. 10, 1928  The Senate and the Multilateral Treaty
Dec. 16, 1926  The Senate's Power of Investigation
Oct. 03, 1924  Pending Proposals to Amend the Constitution
Investigations and Discipline