ArtI.S8.C18.7.6 Rules-Based Limits of Congress's Investigation and Oversight Powers

Article I, Section 8, Clause 18:

[The Congress shall have Power . . . ] To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

In exercising its investigatory powers, Congress is subject to its own rules and, in particular, rules defining committee jurisdictions. The Supreme Court has enforced House and Senate internal rules to limit the exercise of investigatory authority as shown by cases such as Yellin v. United States, Gojack v. United States, and United States v. Rumely.1 These cases stand for the proposition that a congressional committee lacks authority to compel compliance with investigative demands when it acts outside its jurisdiction or fails to comply with its own rules.

In Yellin, the Supreme Court overturned a contempt conviction stemming from a witness’s refusal to answer questions in a public hearing.2 The witness had argued that the conviction was improper because the committee had failed to comply with its own rules regarding the availability of closed sessions.3 Those rules expressly required that in considering whether to close a hearing, the committee consider the possible injury to the witness’s reputation that may result from a public hearing.4 The Court held that in exercising investigative powers, a committee may be “held to observance of its rules.” Finding that the committee had not given due consideration to the witness’s requests for a private hearing, the Court overturned the contempt conviction.5 The Court reached a similar conclusion in Gojack.6 There a HUAC rule required that all “major investigations” be initiated only with the majority approval of the Committee.7 The underlying investigation that gave rise to the contempt prosecution had not been authorized, and thus, the Court reversed the conviction.8

Nor may a committee exercise compulsory investigative powers in connection to matters outside its jurisdiction.9 Committee jurisdiction acts as a fundamental limit on investigative activity as it is directly tied to the “source” of the committee’s authority: the delegation from the parent body.10 A congressional committee, the Supreme Court has declared “is restricted to the missions delegated to it by the parent body, and” “no witness can be compelled to make disclosures on matters outside that area.” 11

In Rumely, the Court affirmed a reversal of a contempt conviction of a defendant who had failed to comply with a House select committee’s subpoena on the basis that the committee was operating outside the jurisdiction delegated to it by the House.12 The defendant in Rumely, the secretary of an organization that published and sold books of “particular political tendentiousness,” had refused to comply with a committee subpoena for the names of those persons or groups who made bulk purchases from the organizations.13 The resolution establishing the select committee, which the Court viewed as “the controlling charter of the committee’s powers,” had authorized the committee to investigate “lobbying activities intended to influence . . . legislation.” 14 The Court interpreted “lobbying activities” to extend only to “representation made directly to the Congress” and thus concluded that the committee had no authority to investigate or enforce a subpoena against a witness who had sought only to influence public opinion.15 In adopting this interpretation of “lobbying activities,” the Court expressly stated that it gave the committee’s jurisdiction a “more restricted scope” in part so as to avoid the possibility that enforcement of the subpoena would violate the witness’s First Amendment right to engage in political speech.16 The Court has followed a similar approach in subsequent cases. At times, it has adopted a narrow interpretation of a committee’s jurisdiction or the scope of a committee investigation to avoid the possibility of a constitutional conflict on the grounds that “[p]rotected freedoms should not be placed in danger in the absence of a clear determination by the House or the Senate that a particular inquiry is justified by a particular legislative need.” 17

Yellin v. United States, 374 U.S. 109, 114 (1963); Gojack v. United States, 384 U.S. 702, 712 (1966); United States v. Rumely, 345 U.S. 41, 47 (1953). back
Yellin, 374 U.S. at 111–12. back
Id. at 113–14. back
Id. at 114. The committee rule provided: “If a majority of the Committee or Subcommittee . . . believes that the interrogation of a witness in a public hearing might endanger national security or unjustly injure his reputation, or the reputation of other individuals, the Committee shall interrogate such witness in an Executive Session for the purpose of determining the necessity or advisability of conducting such interrogation thereafter in a public hearing.” Id. at 114–15. back
Id. at 114. back
Gojack, 384 U.S. at 703–04. back
Id. at 706. back
Id. at 712. The Court rejected claims that it should infer authorization for the investigations, holding instead that “the usual standards of the criminal law must be observed, including proper allegation and proof of all the essential elements of the offense.” Id. at 707. back
See Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 206 (1957) ( “Plainly these committees are restricted to the missions delegated to them, i.e., to acquire certain data to be used by the House or the Senate in coping with a problem that falls within its legislative sphere. No witness can be compelled to make disclosures on matters outside that area.” ). The Court referred to this principle as “a jurisdictional concept of pertinency drawn from the nature of a congressional committee’s source of authority” and distinguished it from the “element of pertinency embodied in the” criminal contempt statute. Id. back
Id. back
Id. back
Rumely, 345 U.S. at 48. back
Id. at 42. back
Id. at 44. back
Id. at 47. back
Id. ( “Certainly it does no violence to the phrase ‘lobbying activities’ to give it a more restricted scope. To give such meaning is not barred by intellectual honesty. So to interpret is in the candid service of avoiding a serious constitutional doubt.” ). back
See Watkins, 345 U.S. at 224. But see Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109, 121 (1959) (rejecting the avoidance approach adopted in Rumely on the grounds that Congress had placed a clarifying “legislative gloss” on the meaning of the applicable committee rule). back