Congressional Access to Executive Branch Information.

Presidents and Congresses have engaged in protracted disputes over provision of information from the former to the latter, but the basic thing to know is that most congressional requests for information are complied with. The disputes, however, have been colorful and varied.631 The basic premise of the concept of executive privilege, as it is applied to resist requests for information from Congress as from private parties with or without the assistance of the courts, is found in the doctrine of separation of powers, the prerogative of each coequal branch to operate within its own sphere independent of control or direction of the other branches. In this context, the President then asserts that phase of the claim of privilege relevant to the moment, such as confidentiality of communications, protection of diplomatic and military secrets, or preservation of investigative records. Counterposed against this assertion of presidential privilege is the power of Congress to obtain information upon which to legislate, to oversee the carrying out of its legislation, to check and root out corruption and wrongdoing in the Executive Branch, involving both the legislating and appropriating function of Congress, and in the final analysis to impeach the President, the Vice President, and all civil officers of the Federal Government.

Until quite recently, all disputes between the President and Congress with regard to requests for information were settled in the political arena, with the result that few if any lasting precedents were created and only disputed claims were left to future argument. The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, however, elected to seek a declaratory judgment in the courts with respect to the President’s obligations to obey its subpoenas. The Committee lost its case, but the courts based their rulings upon prudential considerations rather than upon questions of basic power, inasmuch as by the time the case was considered impeachment proceedings were pending in the House of Representatives.632 The House Judiciary Committee subpoenas were similarly rejected by the President, but instead of going to the courts for enforcement, the Committee adopted as one of its Articles of Impeachment the refusal of the President to honor its subpoenas.633 Congress has considered bills by which Congress would authorize congressional committees to go to court to enforce their subpoenas; the bills did not purport to define executive privilege, although some indicate a standard by which the federal court is to determine whether the material sought is lawfully being withheld from Congress.634 The controversy gives little indication at the present time of abating, and it may be assumed that whenever the Executive and Congress are controlled by different political parties there will be persistent conflicts. One may similarly assume that the alteration of this situation would only reduce but not remove the disagreements.


See the extensive discussion in Shane, Legal Disagreement and Negotiation in a Government of Laws: The Case of Executive Privilege Claims Against Congress, 71 MINN. L. REV. 461 (1987). back
Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities v. Nixon, 370 F. Supp. 521 (D.D.C.), aff’d, 498 F.2d 725 (D.C. Cir. 1974). back
President Nixon’s position was set out in a June 9, 1974, letter to the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 10 Wkly. Comp. Pres. Docs. 592 (1974). The impeachment article and supporting material are set out in H. REP. NO. 93–1305, 93d Cong., 2d Sess. (1974). back
For consideration of various proposals by which Congress might proceed, see Hamilton & Grabow, A Legislative Proposal for Resolving Executive Privilege Disputes Precipitated by Congressional Subpoenas, 21 HARV. J. LEGIS. 145 (1984); Brand & Connelly, Constitutional Confrontations: Preserving a Prompt and Orderly Means by Which Congress May Enforce Investigative Demands Against Executive Branch Officials, 36 CATH. U. L. REV. 71 (1986); Note, The Conflict Between Executive Privilege and Congressional Oversight: The Gorsuch Controversy, 1983 DUKE L. J. 1333. back