- Historic Sites
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Both committee chairmanships and committee placement are subject to the seniority system, which, despite criticism, persists. The effect, both in the House and in the Senate, is to give members steadily returned from rural districts a disproportionate influence on legislation and to place the committee chairmanships in the hands of elderly —and sometimes ineffective—men. In the current House, for example, ten standing-committee chairmen (out of twenty-one) are from southern states, four of them from Texas. Of the seven key committees five (Agriculture, Armed Services, Appropriations, Banking, and Ways and Means) are controlled by Southerners from rural districts, four of whom are seventy-three or older. The chairman of the powerful Rules Committee is eighty-two. Of the seventeen standing committees in the Senate (compared to thirty-five in 1946) nine are chaired by rural Southerners, five of whom are over seventy.
Investigations are directed to more generalized problems like Watergate and the conduct of the President. The first investigation, in 1792, for example, centered on the reasons for the defeat of General St. Clair’s expedition against the Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory. Thinking at first that Washington as Commander in Chief ought to be directed to investigate the matter, Congress later decided that to order him to do so would constitute an invasion of executive power. Since public moneys had financed the military venture, the representatives decided instead to have a select committee of the House conduct the inquiry, in which St. Clair was found blameless and responsibility laid to logistic and supply failures in the War Department and the Treasury.
Over the next twenty years the House conducted twenty-six investigations and the Senate three, almost all of which concerned the enforcement of existing statutes and the conduct of public officials. For the remainder of the century the power was used sparingly, and by 1925 only 285 investigations had been pursued, an average of about two or three for each two-year term of Congress. The most famous perhaps were a series of continuing inquiries into Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War, by a joint committee established in 1861, and the Crédit Mobilier investigation during the Grant era. Some fifty investigations were made of Wilson’s conduct of World War i, and another forty or so inquired into the Harding scandals in 1923-24.
Since 1946, when the Legislative Reorganization Act extended the power of investigation to standing committees as a matter of course (previously special authorization by the full House or Senate was required), congressional investigations have increased in number, range, and cost. In recent years the average has been more than a hundred per term, about equally divided between each house.
Not surprisingly, the increase has led to criticism that many of the investigations are unnecessary, that they proceed from partisan motives (particularly when the inquiry is directed at the executive branch by the opposition party), and that few substantial pieces of legislation have ever resulted from the sometimes long and costly work. There is no denying the criticism that the publicity generated by major investigations has more often been used to enhance the public image of a particular member of Congress than to aid the legislative process. Certainly Harry S. Truman owed his nomination as Vice President, and thus his Presidency, to his evenhanded investigation of industrial mobilization during World War it. Similarly, Richard Nixon rose to prominence in the Alger Hiss inquiry in the early 1950’s, and Estes Kefauver became a serious Presidential contender as a result of his investigation into organized crime in the same period.
The most serious charge—that investigators have often violated the rights of witnesses and abused the great power they wield—was given new meaning through the activities of Joseph McCarthy during the early years of the Korean War. As a result the House in 1955 and later some, but not all, Senate committees established special rules to control investigative procedures, especially the submission of evidence, and to safeguard the rights of all persons called to testify.
Both houses, for example, have the authority to refuse the admission of members deemed unsuitable on moral or legal grounds, but it has rarely been exercised. To date six representatives have been denied their seats in the House. Two cases involved representatives from the border state of Kentucky in 1867 who were found guilty of traitorous conduct; southern representatives, by contrast, had been admitted after submitting to a test oath.
A third congressman was excluded in 1870 because he had sought re-election and won after earlier resigning his seat to escape censure because he allegedly sold appointments to West Point. A fourth—a Mormon—was found unsuitable for seating in 1890 because he had been found guilty of practicing polygamy.