From: The Constitution Project
When Congress Comes Calling: A Study on the Principles, Practices, and Pragmatics of Legislative Inquiry
1. Introduction: Updating the Study of Legislative Inquiry and Adapting it to the Changed Climate of Congressional Oversight
[T]he 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; to censure them if found condemnable, and, if the men who compose the government abuse their trust … to expel them, and either expressly or virtually appoint their successors. –John Stuart Mill
Throughout its history, Congress has engaged in oversight of the executive branch—the review, monitoring, and supervision of the implementation of public policy. Congress’s right of access to executive branch information is constitutionally based and is critical to the integrity and effectiveness of our scheme of separated but balanced powers. The first several Congresses inaugurated such important oversight techniques as special investigations, reporting requirements, resolutions of inquiry, and use of the appropriations process to review executive activity. In the face of executive challenges to its authority, the legislature’s capacity and capabilities to check on and check the executive have increased over time. Supreme Court and lower court rulings have recognized the institutional importance and necessity for its broad inherent authorities of information gathering and self-protection against aggrandizement by the coordinate branches. Public laws, congressional rules, and historical practices have measurably enhanced Congress’s implied power under the Constitution to conduct oversight.
The 2009 handbook, which this study replaces, was designed to provide a relatively concise, practical guidance for members and staff on the conduct of congressional oversight, and on the scope and limitations of the respective powers of Congress, the executive branch, and the judiciary. It detailed the rules and tools of oversight available to congressional committees and when and how they may use them. It also assessed the limited abilities of the executive branch and members of the public to resist such inquiries, and of the courts to resolve such inter-branch conflicts. Finally, it described the then-recent executive branch challenges to congressional oversight and suggested ways to address those disputes. In short, that volume was designed to serve as a first resort resource for anyone involved in congressional oversight inquiries.