Power of Congress to demand information from people, orally or in writing, and to punish those who refuse to cooperate.
Congressional committees usually secure information by summoning individuals to testify orally at hearings and to provide necessary documents. Most of those summoned want to testify and thereby have input into the legislative process, but some refuse to cooperate. Congress has always acted on the assumption that it has the power to punish these people for contempt.
Most of the Court’s pronouncements on Congress’s investigative power were made during the Cold War
In several rulings in the 1950’s, the Court made it clear that the power of Congress to investigate, while broad, is not unlimited. In Watkins v. United States
In the process of pursuing a valid legislative goal, Congress may demand only information relevant to that goal. An investigative committee does not have the power to ask vague or leading questions in the hope that something interesting will develop. Nor does it have the power to question witnesses simply to expose them to shame or humiliation. Before a person can be punished for refusing to answer a question, Congress must prove its pertinence to the legislative goal. The Court looked for evidence of pertinence in a number of legislative debates and in the statements of the chairperson of the committee holding the hearing.
Because congressional investigations are government actions, they are limited by the relevant rights of individuals. The Court held that witnesses, under the Bill of Rights
Because the questions and answers in a congressional hearing are recorded, they can be used as evidence in a criminal proceeding. In particular, witnesses during the communist witch-hunts were afraid that their testimony could be used against them in Smith Act (1940) prosecutions meant to limit the political activities of the Communist
In Watkins, the Court ruled that the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech is available in congressional investigations. Its intent was to protect witnesses from being exposed to public censure by being forced to admit to holding unpopular political beliefs. However, in Barenblatt v. United States
The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures may offer congressional witnesses some protection. Congress must provide a clear reason for wanting specific documents or records. It cannot make vague or general requests in hopes that something useful will turn up. Although a subpoena need not be as detailed as a search warrant, Congress must give witnesses a clear idea of the documents and records it is demanding. If Congress violates the Fourth Amendment’s requirements, the information it collects, even if made public, cannot be used in subsequent criminal prosecutions.
Beck, Carl. Contempt of Congress: A Study of the Prosecutions Initiated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945-1957. New Orleans, La.: Hauser Printing, 1959. Fisher, Louis. The Politics of Shared Power: Congress and the Executive. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998. Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. House Committee on the Judiciary. Clarifying the Investigatory Powers of the United States Congress. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988. Landis, James M. “Constitutional Limitations on the Congressional Power of Investigation.” Harvard Law Review 40, no. 2 (December, 1926): 153-221. Taylor, Telford. Grand Inquest: The Story of Congressional Investigations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955. _______. “Legislative Investigation.” In Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
Contempt power of Congress
Self-incrimination, immunity against