Posts tagged ‘Teapot Dome’

Contempt of Congress (CongressionalGlossary.com)

From the Congressional Glossary – Including Legislative and Budget Terms

Contempt of Congress


(ATF gunwalking scandal, aka Fast and Furious)

Contempt of Congress 1: The power of Congress to punish for contempt is inextricably related to the power of Congress to investigate. Generally speaking, Congress’ authority to investigate and obtain information, including but not limited to confidential information, is extremely broad. While there is no express provision of the Constitution or specific statute authorizing the conduct of congressional oversight or investigations, the Supreme Court has firmly established that such power is essential to the legislative function as to be implied from the general vesting of legislative powers in Congress. The broad legislative authority to seek and enforce informational demands was unequivocally established in two Supreme Court rulings arising out of the 1920’s Teapot Dome scandal: McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927), and Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263 (1929). Subsequent Supreme Court rulings have consistently reiterated and reinforced the breadth of Congress’ investigative authority.

Tools available to Congress during investigations include subpoenas, contempt power, grants of immunity, and staff interviews and depositions. House and Senate rules authorize standing committees and subcommittees to compel individuals to appear and testify in hearings or to require the provision of documents to Congress. Either chamber could also by resolution delegate that power, or additional powers, to special or select committees. If an individual fails to provide testimony or documents as required, provisions in statute allow the full House or Senate to cite a witness for criminal contempt and refer the matter to the U.S. attorney; the Senate also has recourse to a civil contempt proceeding against witnesses other than executive-branch officials. In the past, the threat of a congressional subpoena or contempt citation has often led to negotiated or full compliance on the part of the targeted individual or office. Litigation is used at times, but federal judges generally encourage congressional and executive parties to settle their differences out of court.

Contempt of Congress is punishable by statute and under the inherent powers of Congress. Congress has not exercised its inherent contempt power for some time. The statutory contempt of Congress provision, 2 U.S.C. § 192, has been employed only slightly more often and rarely in recent years. Much of what we know of the offense comes from Cold War period court decisions. Congress’ contempt power is the means by which Congress responds to certain acts that in its view obstruct the legislative process. Contempt may be used to coerce compliance (inherent contempt), punish the contemnor (criminal contempt), and to remove the obstruction (civil contempt). Although arguably any action that directly obstructs the effort of Congress to exercise its constitutional powers may constitute a contempt, in the last seventy years the contempt power (primarily through the criminal contempt process) has generally been employed only in instances of refusals of witnesses to appear before committees, to respond to questions, or to produce documents.

For more, see 2 U.S.C. Chapter 6: Congressional and Committee Procedure; Investigations – FDsys.

Enforcement through one of the forms of contempt proceedings available to the House and Senate is undertaken only after committee and chamber approval. If a witness invokes a Fifth Amendment privilege against testifying, a committee might still compel testimony with a two-thirds vote of the committee in favor of seeking a court order to grant immunity and direct the witness to testify. The immunity granted protects the witness from use of the testimony in a criminal prosecution. A grant of immunity might then jeopardize criminal prosecution, the prosecutor bearing the burden of showing that the case is not based on or derived from the immunized testimony.

The House can also adopt a simple resolution–a resolution of inquiry–requesting information or documents from the president or directing a department or agency head to supply such information. Such a resolution is used to obtain factual information, not to request opinions or investigations. Congressional committees often use staff interviews to collect information as part of an investigation. This staff work provides tighter focus to the questioning and witness list for investigative hearings. On some occasions, House and Senate resolutions have provided specific authority to a committee for staff members to take sworn depositions. Special committee procedures have usually been established under these circumstances. Among other things, depositions, which are conducted in private, might lead to more efficient use of hearing time, facilitate more candid responses from witnesses than they would provide in a hearing, and allow further investigation of witness allegations prior to the airing of those allegations at a public hearing. Under certain circumstances, a committee might seek a court order to grant partial or full immunity to a witness as a means of obtaining testimony.

House rules give the Oversight and Government Reform Committee wide latitude in conducting oversight. Senate rules do the same for the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Each committee may conduct oversight government-wide and on intergovernmental programs and activities, and each is given a special responsibility to study GAO reports and recommend action to Congress based on those reports. In addition to general provisions encouraging oversight, House and Senate rules give specific committees “special” or “comprehensive” authority to conduct oversight in certain policy areas, although a particular policy area might fall within the legislative jurisdiction of several committees.

From time to time, Congress has also established temporary commissions to investigate particular events or issues. Such commissions have varied in their mandates, authorities, and profiles. The 9/11 Commission, for example, was established by law (P.L. 107-306; 116 Stat. 2408), and was populated by experienced and knowledgeable individuals who demonstrated a determination to reach consensus and see the commission’s recommendations implemented. The commission had the power to hold hearings and collect evidence, and was granted subpoena power.

Contempt of Congress 2 (Contempt for Congress): Many people have contempt for Congress, most commonly expressed in opeds, political cartoons and opinion polls regarding congressional job approval. For example, Real Clear Politics has a roundup of different polls, and for the week of May 5, 2012, the average approval was 13.8% and the disapproval was 78.5%. Polling Report also has a page showing Congress’ job rating over time.

Contempt of Congress 3: Many also feel that the “Contempt of Congress” is Congress’ contempt for citizens, similar to that expressed in the Puck cartoon below.

Congressional contempt, by Frederick Burr Opper, in Puck, January 31, 1883, Caption: Republican Congressman "He is howling for help." Monopolist "Throw him a promise!" Source:Library of Congress 2012645443

Congressional contempt, by Frederick Burr Opper, in Puck, January 31, 1883, Caption: Republican Congressman "He is howling for help." Monopolist "Throw him a promise!" Source:Library of Congress 2012645443

Also see Executive Privilege; Immunity; Oversight / Oversight Committee; Privilege; § 8.70 Congress and the Executive: Oversight and Investigation, § 8.75 Committee Investigations and Witness Protections, § 8.76 Example of Subpoena to Executive Branch Official, § 8.77 Seeking to Compel Testimony, in Congressional Deskbook.

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Publications



Legislative Drafter’s Deskbook: A Practical Guide


Congressional Deskbook: The Practical and Comprehensive Guide to Congress


Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials: Citizen Advocacy in State Legislatures and Congress: A Guide for Citizen Lobbyists and Grassroots Advocates


The Federal Budget Process: A description of the federal and congressional budget processes, including timelines

CongressionalGlossary.com, from TheCapitol.Net

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Congressional Oversight and Investigative Hearings

Although there are many different types of congressional hearings, some of the most well known and often discussed in the media are oversight and investigative hearings. Such hearings may be conducted whenever a committee chooses to do so, although they are often conducted in association with a public policy question or an accountability matter. Oversight hearings can also be combined with authorization or legislative hearings, particularly whenever there is a routine review of a federal program.

Looking For Clues (188 / 365)
Creative Commons License photo credit: somegeekintn

In many ways, the oversight function of Congress is like a quality control study. Oversight and investigative hearings can include periodic and selective reviews of federal agencies and departments as well as their policies, activities and programs. This especially relates to the way in which federal laws, programs and regulations are administered. Oversight hearings can focus on federal program quality.

The goal of an oversight hearing is typically to ensure that the agencies of the executive branch are administering federal programs in the way that Congress intended. Such hearings can also be used for the purpose of correcting behavior of the executive branch. Congress may utilize oversight hearings to enhance the effectiveness, responsiveness and efficiency of government operations and programs while also working to identify and eliminate fraud and abuse. Overall, oversight hearings form an effective tool for congressional committees to scrutinize the implementation of programs and laws by the executive branch.

The focus of investigative hearings usually involves the Testifying Before Congress, by William LaForgesuspicion or the suggestion of wrongdoing within governmental ranks. In some cases, it can even involve possible allegations of a criminal nature. Investigative hearings are similar in many ways to other types of congressional hearings; however, a major difference involves the focus on wrongdoing or a breach of responsibility. Congress, as well as congressional committees, have quite a broad authority related to investigatory hearings. Problems that are uncovered during an investigative hearing can often lead to new legislation that may relate to federal funding or result in referral to a federal or state court.

Some of the most famous examples of congressional investigations include the Titanic investigation of 1912, the Teapot Dome scandal investigation, the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954, the Watergate investigation in the early 70s and the Iran-Contra investigation in 1987.

To learn more about preparing to testify before Congress, consider attending our workshop Preparing and Delivering Congressional Testimony, also available for custom, on-site training.

Reference: Testifying Before Congress, by William LaForge, Section 1.56 Oversight and Investigative Hearings.

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