Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Law: Congressional Access to Presidential Documents: The House Resolution of Inquiry

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Law: Congressional Access to Presidential Documents: The House Resolution of Inquiry

Article excerpt

Congress has many techniques for obtaining documents from the executive branch, including simple requests, committee investigations, subpoenas, and holding executive officials in contempt. One procedure, used only in the House of Representatives, is the resolution of inquiry, which "is a simple resolution making a direct request or demand of the president or the head of an executive department to furnish the House of Representatives with specific factual information in the possession of the executive branch" (Deschler's 1977). It has been the practice to use the verbs "request" in asking for information from the president and "direct" when addressing department heads.

Resolutions of inquiry are often much more effective in obtaining information from the executive branch than one would expect from committee and floor action. Administrations may release so much information that the committee of jurisdiction concludes that the dispute is moot and it is therefore appropriate to report the resolution adversely and table it on the floor. The sponsor of the resolution may also support an adverse report and tabling action because the administration is in substantial compliance.

There is no counterpart in current Senate practice for resolutions of inquiry, although some precedents date to the end of the 19th century and to one effort in 1926 (Riddick's 1992). Nothing prevents the Senate from passing such resolutions, but apparently the Senate is satisfied with the leverage it has through other legislative means, including the nomination process and Senate "holds." Unlike the House, the Senate has no special practices for expediting consideration through committee discharge or non-debatable motions, and resolutions are not generally privileged for immediate consideration.

Origins of Practice

From its very first years, Congress requested information from the executive branch to further legislative inquiries. Initially, these requests did not depend on a House rule. They were made pursuant to the implied authority of Congress to investigate the executive branch. For example, in 1790, the House investigated the receipts and expenditures of public moneys during Robert Morris's term as Superintendent of Finance during the years of the Continental Congress. Congress sought documents from the executive branch in 1790 to judge the size of an annuity to be given Baron von Steuben. As part of its 1792 investigation into the military losses suffered by the troops of Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, the House received a substantial number of documents from the War Department (Fisher 2003).

These early investigations differed in scope and procedure from the House resolution of inquiry, which depends not on Congress operating as the "Grand Inquest" but by a special rule that grants privileged status to a lawmaker's motion to obtain documents from the executive branch. Early House rules contained no procedure for requesting information from the president or Cabinet officials. Throughout its first two decades, however, the House made repeated requests to the president and department heads for information, sometimes to be returned to Congress, and sometimes to the states. Those requests lacked privileged status under House rules.

In 1820, the House clarified its rules for requesting information from the executive branch. There was concern that the House had been acting with inadequate consideration in making such requests. While offering an amendment to House rules on December 12, 1820, Rep. Charles Rich noted that "six clerks had been constantly employed, from the close of the last session to the present time, in collecting the materials to enable one of the departments to answer a call at the last session" (U.S. Congress. 1820). He offered this change to the rules: "A proposition, requesting information from the President of the United States, or directing it to be furnished by the Secretary of either of the Executive Departments, or the Postmaster General, shall lie upon the table one day for consideration, unless otherwise ordered, with the unanimous consent of the House" (ibid. …

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