Individual Rights and Congressional Investigations

January 28, 1948

Report Outline
New Attacks on Congressional Investigations
Role of the Investigating Committee
Safeguards for Rights of Committee Witnesses

New Attacks on Congressional Investigations

The right of Congress to undertake investigations into the conduct of individuals has been a subject of controversy ever since the first congressional investigation was put under way in 1792. But the congressional investigation has held a firm place in the process of government in the United States, and little has been attempted in the way of limiting the power of Congress to investigate, or of regulating the procedure of its investigating committees.

As a result of recent developments, new attempts are now being made to place limits on the traditional freedom of congressional inquiry. Many witnesses have refused to answer questions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and are challenging the constitutionality of its processes in the courts. It was announced, Jan. 20, that a Committee of One Thousand, with Harlow Shapley as acting chairman, was being organized to work for the abolition of the Un-American Activities Committee on the ground that it “threatens those freedoms that have given us for 170 years the way of life we cherish and respect.” Legislation offered by California members of the House, after the citation of ten Hollywood film figures for contempt in November 1947, proposes thoroughgoing reforms of investigating procedures to provide better protections for the rights of private citizens. On the other hand, bills introduced by Rep. McDowell (R., Pa.), a member of the Committee on Un-American Activities, would increase the maximum penalties for refusing to appear or refusing to answer questions before investigating committees from $1,000 fine and one year imprisonment to $5,000 fine and five years imprisonment.

Legislators in The Role of Judges

Once described by Woodrow Wilson as “a semi-judicial examination into corners suspected to be dirty,” a congressional investigation can take on aspects of a trial without the safeguards to the individual of regular court proceedings. If illegal activities are uncovered by a congressional committee, such cases can be, and are, referred to the proper authorities for prosecution and punishment, on conviction, by fine or imprisonment under the criminal statutes. But there are many cases in which a committee is exploring activities that are not illegal in themselves, and in these cases witnesses appearing before the committee may be exposed to penalties of a different sort.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Ethics in Government
Jan. 31, 2014  Whistleblowers
Feb. 18, 2011  Lies and Politics
Apr. 30, 2010  Gridlock in Washington
Jun. 22, 2007  Prosecutors and Politics
Jun. 16, 2006  Pork Barrel Politics
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
Organization of Congress