SOME HISTORICAL OPINIONS on the Watchdog function of Congress:
James Wilson (The Works of James Wilson, 1896, vol. II, p. 29), an architect of the Constitution and Associate Justice on the first Supreme Court:
"The house of representatives . . . form the grand inquest of the state. They will diligently inquire into grievances, arising both from men and things."
Woodrow Wilson (Congressional Government, 1885, p. 297), perhaps the first scholar to use the term “oversight” to refer to the review and investigation of the executive branch:
"Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration. It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents. The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function."
John Stuart Mill (Considerations on Representative Government, 1861, p. 104), British utilitarian philosopher:
". . . the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable . . ."
These are only samples of the weight of scholarly opinion. There is clearly agreement that the major focus of the Congressional investigative or 'oversight' function is the Executive Branch and the Presidency. It now seems that the last significant and effective oversight of the Executive Branch by the Congress was the Church committee of the U. S. Senate.
The Church Committee is the common term referring to the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church (D-ID) in 1975. A precursor to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the committee investigated intelligence gathering for illegality by the CIA and FBI after certain activities had been revealed by the Watergate affair.
"Committee subpoenas and contempt citations have been effective instruments for gaining access to executive branch documents that are initially withheld. The pressure that builds from these two techniques generally results in the Administration offering new accommodations to satisfy legislative needs. Although both branches at times seek assistance from the courts, the general message from federal judges is that an agreement hammered out between the two branches is better than a directive handed down by a court."
"Congress has as much right to agency documents for oversight purposes as it does for legislation. Executive claims of “deliberative process,” “enforcement sensitive,” “ongoing investigation,” or “foreign policy considerations” have not been, in themselves, adequate grounds for keeping documents from Congress. On the issue of withholding information from Congress, there are often sharp differences within an Administration, especially between the Justice Department and the agencies."
"Further, these case studies show that statutory language that authorizes withholding information from the public is not a legitimate reason for withholding information from Congress. Sharing sensitive information with congressional committees is not the same as sharing information with the public. Courts assume that congressional committees will exercise their powers responsibly. Legislative committees have demonstrated that they have reliable procedures for protecting confidentiality. Finally, congressional capacity to subpoena agency documents from private organizations is not an adequate substitute for receiving them directly from the agency."
Congressional Investigations: Subpoenas and Contempt Power
April 2, 2003
Congressional Research Service RL31836
When Congress doesn't find out something, it's because it doesn't really want to know. The public be damned.
See also: http://www.fsmlaw.org/fsm/code/title03/T03_Ch04.htm
To be continued...