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Congress of the United States


The Senate and the House of Representatives, acting together or independently, can authorize investigations, or hearings, to obtain information for use in connection with the exercise of their constitutional powers. Information gathered in congressional hearings helps lawmakers draft legislation and monitor the actions of government. It also informs the public about important issues confronting the nation. Noted congressional investigations have included the TEAPOT DOME inquiry in 1923, the 1973–74 Senate WATERGATE hearings, and the IRAN-CONTRA investigation in 1987. Congress has also examined perceived threats to the government, as in the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 in which Senator JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY (R-WI) led an investigation into Communist influence in the U.S. government.

A congressional committee may conduct an appropriate investigation under the authority granted to it, but the methods used in the exercise of its investigative power must not violate the constitutional rights of those under investigation. The extent of the authority of a congressional committee must be determined at the time the particular information is sought and cannot be extended by later action of Congress.

Congressional investigations can be held to obtain information in connection with Congress's power to legislate and to appropriate funds, in addition to other express powers it possesses. Congress has wide discretion to determine the subject matter it studies as well as the scope and extent of its inquiry. An investigation must, however, be based on direct statements made to Congress, its members, or its committees. Congress or its committees may not indiscriminately examine private citizens in order to learn valuable information or to inhibit the exercise of constitutionally protected rights, such as FREEDOM OF SPEECH.

Individuals summoned in a proper manner, or subpoenaed, by Congress or a committee must comply and conform with the summoner's procedure. However, witnesses are legally entitled to refuse to answer questions that are beyond the power of the investigating body or that are irrelevant to the matter under inquiry. A witness who has not been given a grant of IMMUNITY can refuse to answer questions that tend to be incriminating under the protection afforded by the Self-Incrimination Clause of the FIFTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution.

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