This week, public hearings by the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, Capitol uprising will attempt to answer the question whether former President Donald Trump and his political allies broke the law by seeking to overturn the 2020 election results.
The January 6 hearings are part of a long story congressional investigation.
The first congressional inquiry was held in the House in 1792 to investigate General Arthur St. Clair’s role in defeating the United States Army at the Battle of the Wabash against the tribes of the Northwest Territories. The Senate conducted its first official investigation in 1818, examining the conduct of General Andrew Jackson during the Seminole War.
A look back at five of Congress’s most notable investigations since then suggests that Congress has consistently used its constitutional authority to gather facts and draw public attention to important issues.
Ku Klux Klan
In 1871, Congress set up a committee to investigate violence and intimidation of black voters in several states.
A year later, the committee produced 13 volumes of evidence containing the testimony of more than 600 witnesses describing the systemic violence – including murders, beatings, lynchings and rapes – committed by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite extensive media coverage and the wealth of information uncovered, many Americans at this time still questioned the existence of the KKK.
Such skepticism was supported by the Democratic minority report that accompanied the congressional inquiry. At a time when the Democrats represented the party that supported slavery, their report legitimized the actions of the KKK in undeniably racist language. For decades, segments of the public adopted language and sectarian ideas of the minority report.
Teapot Dome Scandal
In 1922, news broke that President Warren G. Harding’s administration had secretly leased federal oil fields to political allies. At the time, these untendered contracts were valued at approximately $200 million — the equivalent of more than $3 billion today.
The contracts were awarded by Interior Secretary Albert Fallformer senator and friend of the president.
Congress has opened an investigation, and a UPI report said on January 22, 1924, “Assistance from agents of the Department of Justice, United States Marshals, and federal courts will be invoked as necessary, the senators said, to compel the truth from reluctant witnesses.”
Following the investigation, Fall resigned and was later convicted of corruption. He was the first former Cabinet official in history being sentenced to prison for malpractice.
Harding is considered one of the worst presidents in the country, in part because of the scandal and corruption uncovered by the congressional investigation.
Organized Crime and the Kefauver Committee
In 1950, Congress formed a special committee in response to a series of news articles suggesting that organized crime was corrupting many local government officials. It was called the Kefauver Committee after its chairman, Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. The committee launched an investigation and visited 14 major cities.
Part of what made The Survey such good television was the cast of characters called to testify. Gangsters, their girlfriends, former elected officials and their lawyers marched through the hearings, all captured live on television.
Not all witnesses have complied with subpoenas. In fact, the Senate approved 45 citations for contempt of Congress in 1951 only. Witness non-compliance litigation continues in most cases, even after the committee released its 11,000+ page final report.
In 1973, after seven men from President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign stormed into Democratic National Committee headquarters, the Senate voted 77-0 create a committee to investigate the break-in.
Throughout the investigation, President Nixon refused to cooperate to the committee’s requests for information and ordered his assistants to do the same. He pretended executive privilege gave him the right to refuse to hand over White House records, including audio tapes, and intended for many of them to be destroyed.
The tapes showed that Nixon had, despite his denials, participated in the cover-up. Nixon lost the support of prominent Republicans in Congress, and he resigned soon after to avoid impeachment.
Intelligence Community and Church Committee
In addition to exposing presidential misconduct, the Watergate Committee investigation found evidence that the US intelligence community was conducting potentially unconstitutional domestic operations, including spying on US citizens.
Then, in 1974, the New York Times published a thorough investigation by journalist Seymour M. Hersh suggesting that the CIA kept at least 10,000 intelligence files on American citizens.
In response, Congress created a special committee to investigate. That of the committee 16 month survey revealed assassination attempts on foreign political leaders, experiments on US citizens, and covert operations to recruit journalists to monitor private citizens’ communications and disseminate propaganda in the media.
The committee found that each presidential administration from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon had abused his authority.
“Intelligence agencies have undermined the constitutional rights of citizens,” the final report concludes“primarily because the checks and balances devised by the framers of the Constitution to ensure accountability have not been applied.”
A few common themes run through these five remarkable congressional investigations.
First, as the legacy of the Church Committee suggests, public hearings help provide a layer of transparency to the government.
Congress and the media can be allies under investigation. Investigative reporting as in the book that revealed the Teapot Dome Scandal and Watergate can lay the groundwork for congressional investigations. And media coverage of proceedings like the The Kefauver Committee investigation not only raises public awareness, but also pressures federal, state and local authorities to take action.
But partying can get in the way. In one example, partisan bickering and the Democrats’ rejection of the KKK process hampered the effectiveness of Congress and provide a story who helped justify Jim Crow laws and other racist policies.
Likewise, party loyalty has led many Republicans to stay vocal in support of Nixon until the full extent of the president’s actions were revealed by the Watergate investigation.
These moments in history also illustrate the importance of examining the political support networks of elected officials.
When President Harding took office, he placed loyal allies in government positions. While these allies helped reinforce Harding’s commitment to reorganizing the government and “return to normalitythey also perpetuated corruption.
Similarly, the Watergate investigation prompted criminal charges against 69 people, including two Cabinet members. Additionally, dozens of large corporations pleaded guilty to illegally funding Nixon’s re-election campaign.
While the upcoming January 6 House Inquiry Committee hearings will deal with events unprecedented in American history, the very investigation of these events has strong precedents. Congress has long wielded its power to investigate some of the biggest issues facing the nation. In this way, the upcoming hearings fit perfectly into the mainstream of US government surveillance.
Jennifer Selin is co-director of the Washington office for the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy, Wayne State University.
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