Congressional Oversight: Overreach of Authority, or Entrenched Legal Tradition?

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Corey Bushle, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

On May 20, 2019 a D.C. District Court upheld the House of Representatives Oversight Committee’s power to conduct investigations pertinent to its legislative goals, even when those goals intersect with the President’s power.[1] The court held that the Committee had constitutional authority, through Congress’s implied power of inquiry, to request private financial statements of the President, including documents dated years prior to President Trump’s candidacy for president.[2] The decision is far from controversial when viewed in context with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on Congressional oversight and inquiry; the Court has not struck down an exercise of the Congressional inquiry power on Constitutional grounds since 1880.[3]

Nevertheless, the decision is important because it illustrates that, while the Supreme Court has paid lip service throughout its history to supposed limitations on Congress’s inquiry and oversight powers, these limitations are ultimately without real substance. This article will review the decision in Trump v. Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives in context of U.S. legal tradition on legislative authority, analyzing whether the decision was correct. Finally, this article will examine whether the decision reflects a policy that will foster effective accountability between the President and Congress.

II. Background

The D.C. District Court’s decision in Trump v. Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives came about from Congress’s massive, ongoing investigation into President Trump, his campaign, and his staff. After the President’s former attorney Michael Cohen testified before Congress alleging that the President routinely altered his financial statements in order to understate or overstate his financial position depending on the situation, the House Oversight Committee launched a series of inquiries into the President’s personal finances.[4] The Committee issued subpoenas to Mazars USA LLP, an accounting firm that provided services to the President, demanding access to several documents concerning the President himself and his affiliated organizations—the earliest of which was dated from 2011, well before Trump was even a presidential candidate.[5] The requests sparked a litigation clash between the President and the Oversight Committee over the extent of the legislative branch’s authority to investigate.

A. The President’s Arguments

The Court sorted President Trump’s arguments for why the subpoenas were unconstitutional into three general categories. First, the President argued that by allegedly investigating into the accuracy of a private citizen’s financial statements, the Committee was not engaged in “legislative” activity, but was usurping the executive and judicial branches by acting as law enforcement. Second, the President argued that since the scope of the inquiry extended beyond Trump’s time as a candidate for office, the Committee’s requests had nothing to do with government oversight, but was merely “exposure for exposure’s sake” of the conduct of a private citizen, which the Supreme Court has held to be an invalid purpose for a Congressional inquiry. Third, the President argued that the Committee did not act with a specific legislative purpose, but that it was conducting “roving oversight” without any end goal in sight, and that the financial documents from Mazars could not be related to any legislative purpose.[6]

B. The Court’s Decision

In granting summary judgement for the House Oversight Committee, the court rejected each of the President’s arguments.[7] As for the first point—that the Committee was usurping executive power by requesting documents that might reveal criminal wrongdoing—the court succinctly held that “[j]ust because a congressional investigation has the potential to reveal law violations does not mean such investigation exceeds the legislative function.”[8] Moreover, the court observed that Congress has wide latitude in its committee activities, and that courts require “exacting proof” to hold that Congress has improperly intruded into the coordinate branches of government.[9] According to the court, Congress would probably need to go as far as indicate that it intended to try the President at bar for criminal wrongdoing by itself, or go on a fishing expedition at the behest of the Department of Justice to secure documents for an investigation, for the Court to conclude that Congress’s true motive in issuing the subpoenas was not legislative, but executive or judicial. Since, in the court’s reasoning, this case clearly did not constitute such an extraordinary case of overstepping of Constitutional authority, the court deferred to the Oversight Committee and concluded that the subpoenas were a valid exercise of legislative power.[10]

After dismissing the first argument, the court turned to the President’s assertion that the Committee was investigating a private citizen’s affairs. Relying heavily on the Supreme Court’s 1880 decision in Kilbourne v. Thompson,[11] where the Supreme Court held that Congress does not have “the general power of investigating the private affairs of a citizen,” the President argued that, since the inquiry focused on activity that preceded his time in office, and the inquiry was not legislative in nature, Congress had no authority to request his private records.[12] Recounting Kilbourne and its unconvincing impact on Congressional inquiries, the court found that the case was largely “impotent” as a guiding principle to limit Congressional power, as no Supreme Court or Circuit Court decision had ever declared a Congressional inquiry unconstitutional because it investigated the private affairs of a citizen. The court characterized the true nature of the Kilbourne holding as one which prohibits Congress from investigating private affairs without a valid legislative purpose.[13] To offend that standard, the court said, a Congressional inquiry must have only one predominant result—an invasion of a person’s private affairs.[14] According to the court, the presence of an underlying invasive motive by individual members of the Committee could not overcome an otherwise valid inquiry connected to a legislative goal.[15]

To that end, the court found that the subpoenas could rationally lead to legislation on ethics and disclosure laws, as well as allowing the Committee to ensure the President’s compliance with the Foreign Emoluments clause—the Oversight Committee’s provided reasons for requesting the subpoenas.[16] Because these subjects were within Congress’s authority to legislate, the inquiry was at least facially valid. Thus, while the President cited several errant remarks by some Committee members that indicated a desire to embarrass or humiliate the President with the subpoenas, the Court declined to speculate as to the “true motive” of the investigation in the face of an otherwise valid legislative purpose.[17]

The President’s final argument contained two prongs. The President argued that the documents were not reasonably relevant to a legitimate legislative purpose, because (1) the request is akin to a “fishing expedition” for which the Committee had no reason to expect it to yield specific information and (2) any contemplated legislation that might be related to the documents would be unconstitutional, and thus the Committee has no valid legislative purpose.[18]

In dismissing the first part of the argument, the court held that the standard for Congressional inquiries, “pertinence” is a much lower bar to meet than the civil litigation standard of “relevance.”[19] Moreover, according to the court, the inquiry at hand would plainly meet either standard as the documents were relevant to the Committee’s investigation into ethics and conflict of interest laws.[20] As to the second portion of the President’s argument, the court held that since the Committee had a facially valid legislative purpose in investigating potential ethics and emoluments violations by the President, as evidenced by the admissions of Trump’s personal attorney, the courts could not overstep their Constitutional authority by ruling contemplated legislation unconstitutional; doing so would amount to issuing an advisory opinion, well outside the authority of federal courts.[21]

Having dispensed with all of the President’s arguments, and finding that the Oversight Committee’s requests were reasonably related to its claimed legislative motives in ethics, conflict of interest, and emoluments laws, the court granted summary judgement to the Oversight Committee.[22]

III. Analysis

The D.C. District Court’s decision in Trump v. Oversight Committee was clearly the correct result, as even the most cursory review of the Supreme Court’s decisions on Congressional investigative authority will show. In an era where public trust in government is at an all-time low,[23] now is not the time for courts to break from tradition to shield elected officials from internal scrutiny for potential wrongdoing, even when the likelihood of revealing such wrongdoing seems low. Moreover, the term “legislative power” is far from a self-defining concept, and courts should avoid rigidly construing this term when doing so has a high likelihood of eroding fundamental, well-established checks and balances between the legislature and the executive.

The Supreme Court has long held that Congress has the implicit power to conduct inquiries and issue subpoenas to ensure that its laws are operating as intended, and to serve an informing function which allows Congress to look into corruption or inefficiencies in government.[24] In the 1927 case McGrain v. Daugherty, the Court considered whether Congress had the power to compel a private citizen to appear before it and testify as necessary to achieve a legislative purpose, and whether it appeared that Congress was actually using the testimony for its offered purpose.[25]At issue in McGrain was alleged misconduct by Attorney General Harry Daugherty, which caused the Senate to authorize a House Committee to investigate Daugherty.[26] In the course of the investigation, the Committee subpoenaed Daugherty’s brother—a banker—to provide testimony and documents from the bank where he worked which were relevant to the charges against the Attorney General.[27] The Court upheld the constitutionality of the subpoenas, observing that the power to obtain information needed to carry out its duties has long been an accepted power of the legislature, predating the United States and stretching back to Colonial Legislatures and British Parliament.[28] The House of Representatives has exercised this power as early as 1792.[29]

The Court in McGrain concluded that even the State courts have near-uniformly held that legislatures possess authority to compel discovery of information to perform their duties.[30] Even before McGrain was decided, legal scholars acknowledged the deeply entrenched nature of the powers of legislative inquiry, punishment for contempt in legislative hearings, and the power to send for persons and papers.[31] In short, there is no reasonable basis to claim that requesting documents and information is not a “legislative power” within Anglo-American legal tradition. 

However, a key issue in both McGrain and Trump is the alleged “private citizen” status of the subpoena’s subject matter. This issue really contains two separate questions: first, does the legal tradition of legislative oversight make a distinction between “public” and “private” persons; and second, is there any compelling policy reason to treat public and private persons differently when it comes to Congress’s power to gather information and conduct oversight?

As for the first question, the answer seems to be a soft “yes.” In Kilbourne, which may be the only case where a Congressional subpoena was held unconstitutional by a federal court, the Court held that Congress had exceeded its authority by investigating an unfavorable settlement with a bank to which the United States was a creditor.[32] The case has often been cited—as President Trump did in Trump v. Oversight Committee—to support the proposition that Congress does not have the general power to investigate the private affairs of a citizen.[33] However, this supposed limitation has proved to be toothless in practice. Since Kilbourne was decided in 1880, no Court of Appeal or Supreme Court case has ever struck down a Congressional subpoena on the grounds that it was an “investigation into the private affairs of a citizen.”[34]

As for the second question, practicality requires that the answer be “no.” The vast majority of conduct regulated by Congress is private; to effectively create laws that punish white collar crime, Congress may need to inquire into private business affairs; if a new technology arises that poses a threat to the safety of its constituents, Congress must be able to summon private scientists and businesspersons familiar with the technology to effectively proscribe regulations. Moreover, the testimony of private individuals may be necessary even when Congress investigates public officials like the President. The case at hand is the perfect illustration of this principle; but-for the time frame of the Mazars documents, which includes documents before Trump’s presidency, there would be no question that in the interest of possible impeachment proceedings, for example, the House could subpoena the President’s records from a private company. However, since the Committee requested some documents from before Trump’s presidency began, the President argued that they were irrelevant to a goal of public oversight. Such an argument has no basis in the law; writing for the Court in Watkins v. United States,Chief Justice Warren observed that citizens are entitled to know the inner workings of their government, and that Congress has the power to aid in that pursuit.[35] Whether the President of the United States has committed crimes, some of which may be ongoing, certainly falls under the umbrella of the inner workings of government to which the public is entitled to know.

IV. Conclusion

Modern legal scholarship on the effectiveness of Congressional oversight is limited, and what little study exists on this subject is inconclusive.[36] If politicians engage in covert dealings with private entities that creates conflicts of interest and a risk of corruption, they cannot be allowed to shield their misconduct behind the private entity through an artificially-imposed barrier. Such a barrier would ensure the evisceration of Congressional Oversight as a potentially effective check on the Executive. Thus, courts must continue to give wide deference to the judgment of Congress when evaluating the Constitutionality of an investigation as an exercise of legislative power.


[1]Trump v. Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Reps., 380 F.Supp. 3d 76 (D.D.C. 2019).

[2]Id.at 82.

[3]Id. at 99.

[4]Id. at 84-85.

[5]Id. at 86.

[6]Id. at 96-97.

[7]See id. at 105.

[8]Id. at 97.

[9]Id.

[10]Id. at 98.

[11]103 U.S. 168 (1880).

[12]Trump, 380 F. Supp. 3d at 99.

[13]Id. at 100.

[14]Id.

[15]Id. at 101.

[16]Id. at 96.

[17]Id. at 101. 

[18]Id. at 101-103.

[19]Id. at 101.

[20]Id.

[21]Id. at 103.

[22]Id. at 105.

[23]Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019, Pew Research Center (Apr. 11, 2019), https://www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/ (last visited Sept. 17, 2019).

[24]See e.g. McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927); Quinn v. United States, 349 U.S. 155 (1955); Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957).

[25]273 U.S. at 154-55.

[26]Id. at 151-52.

[27]Id. at 152.

[28]Id. at 161-62.

[29]Id.

[30]  Id.at 165.

[31]James M. Landis, Constitutional Limitations on the Congressional Power of Investigation, 40 Harv. L. Rev. 153, 169 (1926).

[32]Kilbourne, 103 U.S. at 168.

[33]McGrain, 273 U.S. at 171.

[34]Trump v. Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Reps., 380 F. Supp. 3d 76, 99 (D.D.C. 2019).

[35]Watkins, 354 U.S. at 200.

[36]Carl Levin, Defining Congressional Oversight and Measuring its Effectiveness, 64 Wayne L. Rev. 1, 22 (2018).

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