Congressional Investigations Continue American Tradition

Article excerpt

Byline: Thomas V. DiBacco

It's a Capitol Hill rite of passage older than the Constitution: The first of many congressional investigations for this year - this one concerning the collapse and political ties of Enron Corporation - will take place Thursday.

During the American Revolution, the investigating committee arose as the Continental Congress, the nation's governing body, tried to deal with its numerous problems both before and after the formal break with Great Britain.

Of major interest to the Continental Congress was the military campaign of the war, with the first investigating committee dispatched to General George Washington's camp near Boston. Leaving Philadelphia on Oct. 4, 1775, the committee of three, which included Benjamin Franklin, arrived at Washington's headquarters 11 days later. They spent 10 days interviewing numerous officials and returned home with a report to the Continental Congress, which agreed with its recommendation to increase military forces and pay.

Because there was no executive branch of government during the war - the presiding officer of the Continental Congress was a rotating position with no power - the investigating committee was essentially a check on individuals responsible for carrying out congressional resolutions. That situation changed with the adoption and implementation of the Constitution by 1789.

With the exception of impeachment proceedings, no provision of the Constitution delineated congressional authority to investigate the conduct of the other two branches, but the rationale to do so was bolstered by the precedent of the Continental Congress as well as the necessity to have adequate information on which to base proposed legislation.

The first congressional investigation emerged against this background in 1792, precipitated by the biggest Indian victory ever over Army troops - even bigger than General George A. Custer's sad fate at the Little Big Horn in 1876. …