ArtI.S8.C18.7.8 Watergate, Church, and Pike Investigations of Congress

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.

The beginning of the modern era of congressional oversight is arguably marked by a pair of historically significant investigations into core components of Executive power. In 1973 the Senate approved a resolution establishing the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate various aspects of the 1972 presidential campaign including the break in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building.1 The Senate Committee engaged in a series of hearings and received testimony from a number of President Richard Nixon’s closest advisers.2 These hearings uncovered the existence of a taping mechanism installed in the White House, which led to a major confrontation between the President, Congress, and the courts over appropriate access to confidential presidential communications.3 The Senate investigation, in conjunction with an investigation spearheaded by the Watergate Special Prosecutor eventually led to an impeachment investigation in the House and, ultimately, President Nixon’s resignation from office.4

The Watergate investigation was followed up by the 1975 House and Senate investigations into potential abuses by the U.S. intelligence community. The Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (known as the Church Committee after its Chairman, Senator Frank Church)5 and the House Select Intelligence Committee (known as the Pike Committee after its chairman, Congressman Otis Pike)6 held both private and public hearings inquiring into a variety of secret programs, including some related to the potential assassination of foreign leaders, run by the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Committees’ work had a significant influence on the Executive Branch, ultimately resulting in President Gerald Ford taking actions to reform and reorganize the Intelligence Community.

The Watergate, Church, and Pike investigations not only uncovered Executive Branch abuses, but also helped Congress inform itself for legislative enactments to correct problems that had been uncovered by the Committees. The experience of the Watergate investigation, for example, arguably led to campaign finance reform and the Ethics in Government Act, while the findings of the Church and Pike Committees led to enactment of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.7 Congress also made internal changes to increase legislative oversight of intelligence activities by establishing select committees on intelligence in both the House and Senate.8

S. Res. 60, 93rd Cong. (1973). back
See S. Rep. No. 93-981, at 1–95 (1974); 1 Congress Investigates: A Critical and Documentary History 886–904. back
See 1 Congress Investigates: A Critical and Documentary History 900–904; Senate Select Comm. on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 498 F.2d 725, 729–33 (D.C. Cir. 1974). back
H. Rep. No. 93-1305 (1974). back
S. Res. 21, 94th Cong. (1974). back
H. Res. 591, 94th Cong. (1975). back
S. Rep. No. 93-981, at 1071 (making legislative recommendations); Ethics in Government Act, Pub. Law No. 95-521, 92 stat. 1824 (1978); Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Pub. Law No. 95-511, 92 stat. 1783 (1978). back
S. Res. 400, 94th Cong. (1976) (establishing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence); H. Res. 658, 95th Cong. (1977) (establishing the house Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence). back