Investigations of Conduct of Executive Department

For many years the investigating function of Congress was limited to inquiries into the administration of the Executive Department or of instrumentalities of the Government. Until the administration of Andrew Jackson this power was not seriously challenged.192 During the controversy over renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States, John Quincy Adams contended that an unlimited inquiry into the operations of the bank would be beyond the power of the House.193 Four years later the legislative power of investigation was challenged by the President. A committee appointed by the House of Representatives “with power to send for persons and papers, and with instructions to inquire into the condition of the various executive departments, the ability and integrity with which they have been conducted, . . . ”194 called upon the President and the heads of departments for lists of persons appointed without the consent of the Senate and the amounts paid to them. Resentful of this attempt “to invade the just rights of the Executive Departments,” the President refused to comply and the majority of the committee acquiesced.195 Nevertheless, congressional investigations of Executive Departments have continued to the present day. Shortly before the Civil War, contempt proceedings against a witness who refused to testify in an investigation of John Brown’s raid upon the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry occasioned a thorough consideration by the Senate of the basis of this power. After a protracted debate, which cut sharply across sectional and party lines, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to imprison the contumacious witness.196 Notwithstanding this firmly established legislative practice, the Supreme Court took a narrow view of the power in Kilbourn v. Thompson.197 It held that the House of Representatives had overstepped its jurisdiction when it instituted an investigation of losses suffered by the United States as a creditor of Jay Cooke and Company, whose estate was being administered in bankruptcy by a federal court.198 But nearly half a century later, in McGrain v. Daugherty,199 it ratified in sweeping terms, the power of Congress to inquire into the administration of an executive department and to sift charges of malfeasance in such administration.200


In 1800, Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., addressed a letter to the House of Representatives advising them of his resignation from office and inviting an investigation of his office. Such an inquiry was made. 10 ANNALS OF CONGRESS 786–788 (1800). back
8 CONG. DEB. 2160 (1832). back
13 CONG. DEB. 1057–1067 (1836). back
H. R. REP. NO. 194, 24th Congress, 2d sess., 1, 12, 31 (1837). back
CONG. GLOBE, 36th Congress, 1st sess., 1100–1109 (1860). back
103 U.S. 168 (1881). back
The Court held that inasmuch as the entire proceedings arising out of the bankruptcy were pending in court, as the authorizing resolution contained no suggestion of contemplated legislation, as in fact no valid legislation could be enacted on the subject, and as the only relief which the United States could seek was judicial relief in the bankruptcy proceeding, the House had exceeded its powers in authorizing the inquiry. But see Hutcheson v. United States, 369 U.S. 599 (1962). back
273 U.S. 135, 177, 178 (1927). back
The topic of executive privilege, the claimed right of the President and at least some of his executive branch officers to withhold from Congress information desired by it or by one of its committees, is addressed in Article II, The Presidential Aegis: Demands for Papers. Although the issue has been one of contention between the two branches of Government since Washington’s refusal in 1796 to submit certain correspondence to the House of Representatives relating to treaty negotiations, it has only relatively recently become a judicial issue. back