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The law: congressional access to presidential documents: the house resolution of inquiry.

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., 607). On the following day, the House agreed to Rich's proposition.

Two years later, the House made another change to its rules governing resolutions of inquiry, requiring not merely a day's delay but also committee consideration: "And shall be taken up for consideration on the next day, in the order in which they were presented, immediately after reports are called for from select committees, and, when adopted, the Clerk shall cause the same to be delivered" (U.S. Congress 1822).

That language survived until 1879, when the House Rules Committee reported language to eliminate the need for lawmakers to seek unanimous consent from the chamber in order to seek executive documents. Speaker Samuel J. Randall explained that it was "very seldom that it is in order for a member to offer a resolution calling for information; that is the difficulty. Any one member at any time may prevent a call for information" (Cong. Rec., 9:1018). Rep. Roger Q. Mills objected to the procedure for committee referral: "What is the necessity for having a resolution calling for information from one of the Executive Departments referred to a committee? What is the use of my offering a resolution of that kind and having it referred to a committee and there buried?" (ibid.).

Rep. James Garfield explained that the purpose of committee referral was to avoid the "constant danger of gentlemen upon this floor duplicating calls for information. Some one may want some information and offer a resolution calling for it and it passes by unanimous consent, and the same thing may have been asked already by somebody else and nobody has paid any attention to the fact that the same thing has already been called for ..." (ibid.). The House Committee on Rules recommended language that gave committees of jurisdiction full discretion over resolutions referred to them: "Under this call resolutions for information from the Executive Departments of the Government may be offered for reference to the appropriate committees, such committees to have the right to report at any time" (ibid.). The language "under this call" referred to a procedure that required resolutions calling for executive information to be offered only during the morning hour of every Monday.

Mills objected to this procedure, pointing out that a resolution calling for information might be "of a partisan character," because a member of the minority wanted information in the possession of an executive officer of the majority party in the House. Did anyone believe, he asked, "that such a resolution would get out of any committee against the vote of a majority of its members, when the design of the resolution was, perhaps, to expose the malfeasance of some officer belonging to the party of the majority?" (ibid.). Rep. William H. Calkins found Garfield's argument about duplication unpersuasive. If a lawmaker asked for information that an executive department had already made available to another lawmaker, "it would be a full answer to the resolution for such Department to reply that the information had already been given, and the Department would not be required to go over it again." As for Mills's argument that a committee could use its majority party power to block any action on a resolution, Speaker Randall noted that members of the majority party could block floor action on the resolution, because "a single member of that majority could object to it." Mills conceded that point, but said "there would be a record" (ibid.).

Rep. John H. Baker thought that too much power had been centered in the committees of jurisdiction. Upon receiving a resolution requesting information, it should be "imperative for the committee to report either for or against the resolution, so as to allow the question to come before the House for its determination." Speaker Randall considered that "a very good suggestion" that did not occur to the Rules Committee. Rep. Harry White sharpened Baker's proposal by requiring the committee to report "within one week." Baker's amendment, as modified, was agreed to, resulting in this language: "And such committees shall report thereon within one week thereafter" (ibid., 1019). In 1983, the deadline for a committee to report was extended from one week to 14 legislative days.

Committee and Floor Procedures

Under House Rule XIII, clause 7, a member may address a resolution of inquiry "to the head of an executive department." The resolution is privileged and may be considered at any time after it is reported or discharged from committee. If the resolution is not reported to the House within 14 legislative days after its introduction, a motion to discharge the committee from its consideration is privileged. Typically, the House debates a resolution of inquiry for no more than one hour before voting on it. When a committee reports a resolution, the time for consideration is generally given to the committee chairman, who may decide to grant half the time to the ranking member of the committee or subcommittee.

A resolution of inquiry is usually referred to the committee that has jurisdiction over the subject matter, but on a number of occasions two or more committees have been involved in responding to a resolution of inquiry. After a resolution of inquiry is introduced and referred to committee, the committee sends the resolution to the administration for action, requesting a timely response to allow the committee to act within the deadline for a committee report.

While waiting for information from the executive branch, the committee may decide to act on the resolution in the form in which it was referred or consider amendments to it. The committee then votes to report the resolution favorably or adversely. It may also decide not to report at all, forcing the member who introduced the resolution to make a motion to discharge the committee. In most cases the committee reports, either positively or negatively. If the committee concludes that the administration's response is in substantial compliance with the resolution, it may offer a motion on the House floor to table the resolution on the ground that the congressional interest has been satisfied.

Resolutions of inquiry are directed "to the head of an executive department." There have been parliamentary challenges to resolutions that are directed to executive officials who are not considered the head of an executive department, such as the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution or the Interstate Commerce Commission (Cong. Rec., 22: 1874-75; 38:3181). Although the president is not "the head of an executive department," resolutions of inquiry are directed to the president without the parliamentary challenge that the president is not technically a departmental head.

Administrative Discretion

Some House resolutions of inquiry give the administration discretion in providing factual information to Congress, particularly when they are directed to the president. In 1876, the House passed a resolution requesting President Ulysses S. Grant to inform the House "if, in his opinion, it is not incompatible with the public interest," whether since March 4, 1869 (the date his term began) any executive duties had been performed at a distance from "the seat of Government established by law, and for how long a period at any one time, and in what part of the United States; also, whether any public necessity existed for such performance, and, if so, of what character, and how far the performance of such executive offices, acts, or duties, at such distance from the seat of Government established by law was in compliance with the act of Congress of the 16th day of July, 1790" (Cong. Rec., 4:2158).

President Grant could have withheld information on the ground stated in the resolution that disclosure was not compatible with the public interest. Instead, he chose to set forth constitutional reasons for declining the information. First, he said he could find nothing in the Constitution to justify congressional interest as to where the president discharged official acts and duties. What the House could require in terms of information from the executive branch was limited "to what is necessary for the proper discharge of its powers of legislation or of impeachment," neither of which, he said, applied. Asking where executive acts are performed and at what distance from the seat of Government "does not necessarily belong to the province of legislation. It does not profess to be asked for that object" (Richardson 1897, 4316).

Grant pointed out that previous presidents found it necessary to discharge official business outside the nation's capital, and that "during such absences I did not neglect or forego the obligations of the duties of my office" (ibid., 4317). To his letter to the House he appended a study on the number of days other presidents had conducted official business outside the nation's capital. With regard to the statute of July 16, 1790, Grant said that no act of Congress could limit his constitutional duty to discharge governmental functions outside the nation's capital, and that the 1790 statute made no attempt to do so. He noted that on March 30, 1791, shortly after passage of the statute cited in the resolution, President Washington issued a proclamation "having reference to the subject of this very act from Georgetown, a place remote from Philadelphia, which then was the seat of Government ..." (ibid., 4318).

In 1952, the House debated a resolution of inquiry to "direct" the secretary of state to transmit to the House, "at the earliest practicable date, full and complete information with respect to any agreements, commitments, or understandings which may have been entered into" by President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the course of their conversations during January 1952, "and which might require the shipment of additional members of the Armed Forces of the United States beyond the continental limits of the United States or involve United States forces in armed conflict on foreign soil" (Cong. Rec., 98: 1205). The resolution came to the floor accompanied by an adverse report from the Committee on Foreign Affairs (ibid., 1215).

During debate on the resolution, which passed 189 to 143, those who supported the resolution regarded it as non-binding. For example, Rep. John Martin Vorys advised his colleagues that "we cannot by this resolution make the Executive answer. We cannot make the President, we cannot make the Secretary of State, say anything. That has been passed on time and again under the precedents of this House. We can put a question up to them. All we can do, if we pass this resolution, is to say to the Secretary of State and the Department of State: 'Please try again. That answer you sent down was not very good'" (ibid., 1208). Rep. James P. Richards, who voted against the resolution, said, regarding this resolution, "it is within the province of the President to refuse to divulge information that he considers would be dangerous or incompatible with the interests of our Nation" (ibid., 1209).

Discretion over the release of information to Congress has also been given to department heads. In 1971, the House considered a resolution directing the secretary of state to furnish certain information respecting U.S. operations in Laos, but the language of the resolution included the phrase "to the extent not incompatible with the public interest" (Cong. Rec., 117:23800). The House tabled this resolution, 261 to 118 (ibid., 23807). In 1979, in the midst of an energy crisis, a resolution of inquiry (H. Res. 291) requested certain facts from the president, "to the extent possible," regarding shortages of crude oil and refined petroleum products, refinery capacity utilization, and related matters. It was adopted 340 to 4 (Cong. Rec. 125:15027, 15039).

Committee Review

A committee has a number of choices after a resolution of inquiry is referred to it. It may vote on the resolution up or down, or amend it, and can report favorably or adversely. A good example of an executive-legislative exchange comes from 1979, when 81 members supported H. Res. 291, a resolution directing President Carter to provide the House with information on the energy crisis: shortages of crude oil and refined petroleum products, methods used in allocating oil supplies, possible actions within the private industry to withhold or reduce oil supplies, and any reduction in the supply of crude oil from any foreign country. Within a week, 21 additional members joined as sponsors of the resolution (Cong. Rec., 125:12626, 12979).

The House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce reported the resolution unfavorably and recommended that it not pass (U.S. House 1979). However, the committee had been seeking the information in a number of hearings, and had asked the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide the information requested in the resolution. The committee stated that much of the information could be found in departmental publications, and that some of the information had been obtained in the course of committee investigations. Yet it also faulted the administration: "it cannot be said that all information necessary to a full understanding of the supply problem is collected by the DOE, nor that the information which is collected is timely. To the contrary, the Committee has found the DOE lacking vital information on such matters as secondary stocks and actual sales of products." The information supplied by the department was "rarely timely, as a result of long lag times in sending out forms and retrieving them," and the department was "heavily reliant on unverified industry data despite the clear directives from the Congress in a variety of statutes, such as the Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act of 1974, and the Department of Energy Organization Act" (ibid., 4).

The committee offered several reasons for reporting the resolution adversely: (1) the department had provided "all of the requested documents which were available at the time resolution was considered, and has promised to provide the Committee additional information when it becomes available;" (2) much of the information was of a confidential or proprietary nature, which was appropriate to share with the committee of jurisdiction but less appropriate to share with the entire Congress; (3) the cost of reproducing the documents was substantial and unnecessary; (4) whatever information was available to the department had been shared with the committee and Congress; and (5) the data requested would probably not "quell public skepticism relating to the Nation's gasoline problems." The committee then added a sixth reason:
 The Committee wishes to make clear that it is extremely interested
 in reliable information concerning the nature of our petroleum
 supply problems. The information currently available is far from
 adequate, and the Committee in reporting this resolution adversely
 does not suggest that the Congress and the public have been fully
 informed concerning these matters. Nor does the Committee wish to
 indicate that the Congress does not have a right to such
 information. To the contrary, the Congress clearly has such a right.
 Rather, the use of a resolution of inquiry is not the appropriate
 mechanism for obtaining this readily available data: it simply will
 not result in any new data (ibid., 8).

When the resolution came to the floor on June 14, Rep. John Dingell pointed to a desk covered with information provided by the Energy Department, including "the tables, data, and other documents. The total is a stack of papers nearly a foot high." Yet he also conceded that all of the committee members "believe that the Department's gathering system is inadequate and that data concerning the energy supplies, demands, and prices is not timely provided" (Cong. Rec., 125:14952). Dingell said he was not critical of those who filed the resolution of inquiry: "I do believe that continued inquiry by the Congress is highly desirable. I believe that the information must be made plain" (ibid., 14953).

Instead of the mass of material sitting on the desk, several members wanted a summary of what the documents contained. Dingell said the department had prepared a summary but it was not yet available from the printer. After several members objected to voting on the resolution without a summary, Dingell agreed to withdraw his initial motion for the immediate consideration of the resolution.

Debate continued the next day, with a number of members expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of departmental data. Minority Leader John J. Rhodes, who had introduced the resolution, said that "as far as the technicalities of the situation are concerned, those questions were answered, but they were answered in such a way as to be almost incomprehensible, and certainly not to inform with the House or the American people as to the reasons for the existence of these shortages" (ibid., 15028). A move to table the resolution of inquiry lost on a vote of 4 to 338 (ibid., 15029).

As the debate moved along, with members of both parties expressing support for the resolution, Dingell said, "I understand the temper of the House very clearly. I want to have my colleagues know that we have had the resolution on inquiry fully and fairly and properly complied with by the DOE, and it will be further fully, fairly, and properly complied with according to the letter of the rules of the House if this resolution is adopted." It was his judgment that the resolution of inquiry would not result in new information, but pledged to "persist in my efforts to procure the information which I and my colleagues desire to have on this particular matter" (ibid., 15035). The resolution of inquiry passed on a vote of 340 to 4, with Dingell adding his support (ibid., 15039).

Another example comes from 1986, after Rep. Leon Panetta introduced H. Res. 395 to receive documents regarding the administration's use of $27 million in appropriated funds for humanitarian assistance for the Nicaraguan democratic resistance. A subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the resolution and made a tentative recommendation that the resolution be reported favorably to the full committee (U.S. House 1986). The subcommittee reviewed documents provided by the administration, and agreed to recommend that the full committee report adversely if the subcommittee received information covering six categories. A second effort by the administration convinced both the subcommittee and Panetta that the executive branch was in essential compliance with the resolution, but the subcommittee and Panetta also agreed that the documents demonstrated that the administration "has not complied with the law requiring it to set up appropriate monitoring procedures with respect to the so-called humanitarian assistance for the Contras authorized by the Congress" (ibid., 5). Panetta, having met with representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency to review classified documents, wrote to the chairman of the full committee that the administration had complied with his resolution of inquiry (ibid., 6).

Competing Investigations

A committee may decide to report a resolution of inquiry adversely because it competes with other investigations that are regarded as more appropriate. In 1980, for example, H. Res. 571 directed the attorney general to furnish the House with "all evidence compiled by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation against members of Congress in connection with the Abscam investigation," which was a Justice Department undercover operation that led to charges of criminal conduct against certain members of Congress. The resolution also asked for "the total amount of Federal moneys expended in connection with the Abscam probe" (Cong. Rec., 126:4071).

A unanimous House Judiciary Committee reported the resolution adversely (U.S. House 1980). The Justice Department "vigorously oppose[d]" the resolution because disclosure of evidence to the House would jeopardize the department's ability to successfully conduct grand jury investigations and to prosecute any indictments. Moreover, the release of unsifted and unevaluated evidence "would injure the reputations of innocent people who may be involved in no ethical or legal impropriety" (ibid., 2).

Other considerations were present. The House Standards of Official Conduct Committee, conducting its own inquiry into Abscam, unanimousiy opposed the resolution of inquiry. The committee had begun the process of negotiating with the Justice Department to obtain access to evidence needed for investigation by the House. Moreover, two subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee were planning hearings into the proper standards for the Justice Department to conduct undercover operations, particularly against members of Congress. During House debate, Rep. John J. Cavanaugh expressed concern that Abscam "raises serious questions of the separation of powers and the ability of one branch of our Government--the executive--to employ investigative methods that are capable of subverting and intimidating and compromising the independence, the constitutional independence, of another and separate branch of our Government" (Cong. Rec., 126:4077).

In this case, Congress chose not to interrupt or interfere with Justice Department prosecutions because it might appear to be self-serving. Members were concerned that a legislative inquiry might look like an obstruction of an active criminal investigation. Forcing the Justice Department to release evidence might help some members who faced criminal prosecution, giving the impression that lawmakers had greater protection than the average citizen. By a vote of 404 to 4, the House decided to table the resolution of inquiry (ibid., 4078-79).

In other situations, Congress may choose to investigate a scandal even if it jeopardizes successful prosecutions. In terms of public policy, it may be more important to investigate a matter promptly rather than wait for the Justice Department or an Independent Counsel to investigate, prosecute, and pursue appeals. Such was the case with Iran-Contra, where both houses of Congress concluded that the value of timely legislative investigation outweighed the needs of prosecutors. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel for Iran-Contra, recognized that if Congress "decides to grant immunity, there is no way that it can be avoided. They have the last word and that is a proper distribution of power.... The legislative branch has the power to decide whether it is more important perhaps even to destroy a prosecution than to hold back testimony they need" (Walsh 1988, 9).

Discharging a Committee

If a committee receives a resolution of inquiry and fails to report it within the requisite number of days, a motion to discharge the committee is privileged. That procedure was used in 1971 after Rep. James M. Collins introduced H. Res. 539 directing the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to furnish certain documents. The resolution directed the release, "to the extent not incompatible with the public interest," of any documents containing a list of the public school systems, from August 1, 1971 to June 30, 1972, that would be receiving federal funds and would be engaging in busing schoolchildren to achieve racial balance (Cong. Rec., 117:28863). Also requested were any documents regarding HEW rules and regulations with respect to the use of any federal funds administered by the department for busing to achieve racial balance. The resolution was referred to the Committee on Education and Labor.

When the committee failed to report the resolution by the deadline, which was seven days in 1971, Collins moved to discharge the committee. His motion was agreed to, 252 to 129. Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Jr., who at that time was the House Majority Whip, voted against the discharge motion but admitted that he was uncertain about the meaning of the resolution. Was the vote for or against busing, or for or against receiving information from HEW? After some initial confusion, he realized it was the latter and announced that he had no objection to the resolution (ibid., 28864-67). With the purpose of the resolution clarified, the House passed it 351 to 36 (ibid., 28869).

Military Operations in Vietnam

The House frequently uses resolutions of inquiry to obtain information on matters of defense and military policy. A particularly heavy use of resolutions of inquiry came during the Vietnam War. In 1971, the House voted on two resolutions to give members access to the "Pentagon Papers," the Defense Department study entitled "United States-Vietnam Relationships, 1945-1967." One of the cosponsors of the resolution, Rep. Bella Abzug, stated that the procedures adopted by the House Armed Services Committee, which had a single copy of the study, did not provide members adequate access to the 47-volume study: "they cannot take notes, cannot have staff people review and comment, cannot report on what they have read. Under such limitations, a Congressman must have an elephantine memory to retain the facts that would enable him to exercise his constitutional duty" (Cong. Rec., 117:23026).

H. Res. 489 directed the president to furnish the House within 15 days the full and complete text of the Pentagon Papers. The House Armed Services Committee reported the resolution adversely, 25 to 2, and it was tabled on the floor, 272 to 113 (ibid., 23030-31). H. Res. 490, containing the identical language, was also reported adversely and tabled (ibid., 23031; U.S. House 1971).

Also in 1971, the House considered several resolutions of inquiry to obtain information about U.S. covert operations in Laos. H. Res. 492 directed the secretary of state, "to the extent not incompatible with the public interest," to provide the House with any documents containing policy instructions or guidelines given to the U.S. ambassador in Laos regarding covert CIA operations in Laos, Thai and other foreign armed forces operations in Laos, U.S. bombing operations other than those along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, U.S. armed forces operations in Laos, and U.S. Agency for International Development operations in Laos that assisted, directly or indirectly, military or CIA operations in Laos. The resolution was accompanied by an adverse report from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Cong. Rec., 117:23800-01). Members explained that they needed information directly from the administration rather than having to depend, as had been their practice, on newspapers.

The resolution was tabled, but pressure for information continued. House resolutions of inquiry are typically reported from committee after a committee meeting and a roll-call vote, but usually without holding hearings. However, in 1972, the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on H. Res. 918, a resolution of inquiry introduced by Rep. Abzug to obtain information on U.S. bombing in Vietnam. Most of the resolution requested specific facts on U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam, the number of sorties flown during specific periods, the tonnage of bombs and shells fired or dropped during specific periods, and other statistics. In testifying on the resolution at the hearings, she stated that the level of bombing constituted "the most dramatic proof yet that the Nixon administration is entirely committed to a fullscale and longterm U.S. air war in Indochina instead of negotiating a full withdrawal in return for the release of our captured pilots" (U.S. House 1972a). At these hearings, Dennis J. Doolin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, provided information on some of the elements in H. Res. 918.

The resolution was reported adversely, 32 to 4 (U.S. House 1972b). During floor debate, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee explained that the information sought in the resolution was in committee files, available to any member of the House for examination, subject to the procedures that prohibited the release or public use of the information without the consent of the committee. When the committee went into executive session, the answers to the questions put by Abzug were spread upon the record. House floor debate on the Abzug resolution, occupying 87 pages in the Congressional Record, includes the transcript from the open hearings before the Armed Services Committee and a number of articles on military operations in Vietnam (Cong. Rec. 118:14349-433). The House voted 270 to 113 to table the resolution (ibid., 14434). Although the resolution was not agreed to, it forced the delivery of information from the administration to the Armed Services Committee, and from there to individual members.

A similar pattern emerged in 1973, when the House acted on H. Res. 379, which directed the secretary of defense to furnish the House information on military operations in Cambodia and Laos: the number of sorties flown by the U.S. during certain periods, the tonnage of bombs and shells fired or dropped during certain periods, the number and nomenclature of U.S. aircraft lost over Cambodia and Laos, and other statistics (Cong. Rec., 119: 14990-91). The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to review the 19 specific questions addressed in the resolution. Chairman F. Edward Hebert asked the Defense Department "to be as responsive as possible to each of the questions, and to the maximum extent possible provide this information in open session." If necessary, the committee would go into closed session to "receive such additional classified information as may be necessary to permit the Department to be fully responsive to this privileged resolution" (U.S. House 1973).

In open session, Deputy Assistant Secretary Doolin provided answers to each of the questions, with two exceptions. He told the committee that he would not be able to provide the answer for Question 10 for another 24 hours, at which time the committee received the information and placed it in the hearing record. He also noted that Question 18, regarding the legal authority for U.S. military activity in Cambodia and Laos since January 27, 1973, would be addressed by Department of Defense General Counsel J. Fred Buzhardt, who proceeded to provide a legal analysis (ibid., 3-6, 11-12). All of the information given by Doolin and Buzhardt was in open session. The sponsor of the resolution, Rep. Robert L. Leggett, agreed that all of the questions had been answered and the resolution was therefore moot (ibid., 32-33). With that understanding, the committee voted 36 to zero to report the resolution adversely. The answers to the 19 questions were placed in the Congressional Record, at which point the resolution was tabled (Cong. Rec., 119:14991-94).

The information divulged by these resolutions of inquiry helped build the case in Congress that the administration had no strategy for withdrawing from Southeast Asia, and that the only way to terminate military operations would be by deleting funds. Congress took that step in 1973 (Fisher 1995, 125-28).

Forcing Other Legislative Actions

Some resolutions of inquiry have caused Congress to take other legislative actions to address the lack of information received from the administration. The two examples included here relate to the calling of supplemental hearings and the adoption of substitute legislation.

A resolution of inquiry, after being partially satisfied by answers from the administration, can trigger supplemental information obtained through congressional hearings. This was the result of H. Res. 552, introduced by Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal on June 18, 1975, to seek information about the administration's proposed sale of Hawk and Redeye missiles to Jordan (Cong. Rec., 121:19616). On the following day, the House Committee on International Relations forwarded the resolution to President Gerald Ford, requesting a prompt reply. The White House responded on June 25, providing responses to the 20 questions put by the resolution (ibid., 21664-67).

On June 26, the committee voted to table the resolution on the ground that it was not restricted to factual answers, but instead required "investigation" on the part of the president to answer several of the questions. Rosenthal, having announced his intention to call up H. Res. 552 for House action because the committee had not reported on his resolution, agreed to withhold that motion in exchange for committee hearings. The committee chairman advised Rosenthal that the committee would get the facts regarding the proposed sale (ibid., 21664, 21882).

The hearings were important because Congress was in the process of deciding whether to block the sale by passing a resolution of disapproval under Section 36(b) of the Foreign Military Sales Act. By the time the administration acknowledged the sale, it indicated that formal notice would not be reported to Congress until late July or early August, at a time when Congress would be in recess and unable to register its position on the arms sale (ibid., 21884).

Formal notice of the sale reached Congress on July 10. Under Section 36(b), Congress had 20 calendar days to pass a concurrent resolution of disapproval. Legislative action on the disapproval resolution therefore had to be completed by July 30. On July 14, Rep. Jonathan Bingham and ten other members introduced H. Con. Res. 337 to disapprove the sale. On July 16 and 17, a subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee held two days of hearings on the proposed sale (U.S. House 1975). Administration officials defended the sale on the first day; eight members of Congress raised their objections the following day. With the disapproval resolution moving toward a vote, President Ford withdrew the proposed sale on July 28 and entered into negotiations with Congress. The administration announced a compromise on September 16, limiting the missiles to "defensive and non-mobile antiaircraft weapons" (CQ Almanac, 1975:358-59).

A House resolution of inquiry can also trigger legislation. In 1991, just prior to U.S. military operations against Iraq, Rep. Barbara Boxer and six Democratic colleagues introduced H. Res. 19 to call for certain information regarding casualty estimates, biological and chemical weapons, financial assistance from other countries (burden sharing), and other information (Cong. Rec. 137:105). Members of both parties recognized that the House was entitled to budgetary and other information from the executive branch, but decided on a different approach. After the war began, Representatives Charles Schumer and Leon Panetta introduced H. Res. 586 on January 18, for the purpose of requiring regular reports from the administration on U.S. expenditures for military operations and the financial contributions from other countries (ibid., 1910). Action on a bill would avoid the 14-day deadline imposed by a resolution of inquiry.

On February 21, the House moved to suspend the rules to pass H. Res. 586. Until the resolution of inquiry and the bill were introduced, Congress was not getting answers to questions asked. In a letter dated February 20, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush, provided specific information in response to H. Res. 19 (ibid., 3904). After H. Res. 586 passed 393 to 1, the House engaged in a brief debate on H. Res. 19 before tabling it by a vote of 390 to 0. In discussing the resolution of inquiry, Rep. Dante Fascell said that it "has proven to be a catalyst for the executive branch to be more forthcoming with the Congress in providing necessary and appropriate information in order to satisfy the oversight responsibilities of the Congress" (ibid., 3909).

Mexico Rescue Package

In 1995, the Clinton administration offered a multibillion-dollar rescue package for the Mexican peso. Rep. Marcy Kaptur responded with a resolution of inquiry (H. Res. 80) requesting President Clinton to submit information to the House "concerning actions taken through the exchange stabilization fund to strengthen the Mexican peso and stabilize the economy of Mexico." The House Banking and Financial Services Committee voted 37 to 5 to report the resolution favorably, but with a substitute directing the president to submit the documents "if not inconsistent with the public interest" (U.S. House, 1995). On March 1, the House adopted the committee substitute and agreed to the resolution, 407 to 21 (Cong. Rec. 141:6422).

Although the resolution established a deadline of 14 days, White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva sent a letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich that the administration would not be able to provide the documentary material until May 15, or two months after the date set in the resolution (Doherty 1995, 880). By April 6, the Treasury Department had supplied Congress with 3,200 pages of unclassified documents and 475 pages of classified documents, with additional materials promised (Mills 1995, F1). The White House said it was in "substantial compliance" with the resolution (CQ Almanac, 1995:10-17).

Iraq's Declaration on WMD

On February 12, 2003, Rep. Dennis Kucinich introduced a resolution of inquiry to give the House access to the 12,000-page Iraqi declaration on its weapons of mass destruction. The declaration had been provided to the UN Security Council on December 7, 2002. In his floor statement on H. Res. 68, Kucinich said that if the administration was intent on going to war against Iraq, "I believe it is incumbent upon them to make the document which was portrayed as evidence of an Iraqi threat available for all to evaluate." He asked that "the primary documents be transmitted in their complete and unedited form" (Cong. Rec., 149:H396).

The administration gave a copy of the declaration to the House on March 7, after which the House International Relations Committee voted to report H. Res. 68 adversely (Sorrells 2003, 16). Rep. Doug Bereuter, who chaired the committee markup, said that the administration's release of the document rendered the resolution moot: "I would say, in short, Mr. Kucinich has won his point" (ibid.). When the declaration reached the House on March 7, the Speaker directed the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to retain custody because of its facilities for handling classified documents (U.S. House 2003, 2).


House resolutions of inquiry have been an effective means of obtaining factual material from the executive branch. Even when committees report the resolutions adversely or succeed in tabling them on the House floor, a substantial amount of information is usually released to Congress. In fact, arguments that the administration has complied with a resolution are frequently the reason for reporting a resolution adversely and tabling it. On occasion, a resolution of inquiry is reported adversely because it competes with other investigations (either in Congress or in the executive branch) that are considered the more appropriate avenue for inquiry. In some situations, resolutions of inquiry have been instrumental in triggering other congressional methods of obtaining information, such as through supplemental hearings or alternative legislation.

Members turn to resolutions of inquiry for different reasons. A member may introduce such a resolution if he or she has been unable to do so through other channels (e.g., committee investigations and hearings). The committee of jurisdiction might have advised the lawmaker that it had no intention of investigating the matter. Also, a resolution of inquiry is often a useful way for a member to bring attention to an issue, receive basic information from the administration, and perhaps spark more extensive legislative investigations. There generally has been broad support within Congress whenever a member seeks factual information from the administration. Only in exceptional cases has an administration taken the position of refusing to Congress facts that are readily available within the executive branch.


Deschler's Precedents. 1977. H. Doc. no. 94-661, 94th Cong., 2d Sess., vol. 7, ch. 24, [section] 8.

Doherty, Carroll J. 1995. House GOP considers stance on bailout of Mexico. CQ Weekly Report, March 25.

Fisher, Louis. 1995. Presidential war power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

--.2003. The politics of executive privilege. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Mills, Mike. 1995. Treasury says Congress given papers on Mexico. Washington Post, April 7.

Richardson, James D., ed. 1897. Compilation of the messages and papers of the presidents, vol. 9, p. 4316.

Riddick's Senate Procedure. 1992. S. Doc. no. 101-28, 101st Cong., 2d Sess. 799, 1205.

Sorrells, Niels C. 2003. Committee votes to demand document already in hand. CQ Today, March 13.

U.S. Congress. 1820. Annals of Congress, 16th Cong., 2d Sess., 608.

U.S. Congress. 1822. Annals of Congress, 17th Cong., 1st Sess., 748.

U.S. House. 1971. H. Rept. no. 92-318, 92d Cong., 1st Sess.; Cong. Rec. 117:23030-31; H. Rept. no. 92-319, 92d Cong., 1st Sess.; Cong. Rec. 117:23031.

U.S. House. 1972a. Full committee hearing and consideration of H. Res. 918, a resolution of inquiry concerning the bombing in Vietnam by the United States government, hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services, April 18, 1972, 9043.

U.S. House. 1972b. H. Rept. no. 92-1003, 92d Cong., 2d Sess.

U.S. House. 1973. Full committee consideration of privileged resolution H. Res. 379, concerning certain military actions in Cambodia and Laos, hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services, 93d Cong., 1st Sess., 1-2.

U.S. House. 1975. Proposed sales to Jordan of the Hawk and Vulcan air defense systems, hearings before the Subcommittee on International Political and Military Affairs of the House Committee on International Relations, 94th Cong., 1st Sess.

U.S. House. 1979. H. Rept. no. 96-261, 96th Cong., 1st Sess.

U.S. House. 1980. H. Rept. no. 96-778, 96th Cong., 2d Sess.

U.S. House. 1986. H. Rept. no. 99-585, 99th Cong., 2d Sess.

U.S. House. 1995. H. Rept. no. 104-53, 104th Cong., 1st Sess.

U.S. House. 2003. H. Rept. no 108-38, 108th Cong., 1st Sess.

Walsh, Lawrence E. 1988. The independent counsel and the separation of powers. Houston Law Review 25:1.

Louis Fisher is senior specialist in separation of powers at Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. This article is drawn from his new book. The Politics of Executive Privilege (Carolina Academic Press. 2003). His books include American Constitutional Law (5th ed., Carolina Academic Press, 2003).
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Author:Fisher, Louis
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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