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Strengthening Checks and Balances

Congress Has Constitutional Mandate to Investigate

(Photo: Joe Newman)

Some Members of Congress continue to raise questions about whether Congress should continue its investigations into possible Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections concurrently with the criminal investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Some have wondered if a Congressional investigation will get in the way of Mueller’s, while others believe, as the new Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said last Tuesday, that “Congress is not the place to litigate legal issues.”

Congress not only has the power to investigate these issues but also, as part of the checks and balances of our democracy, has the duty to conduct them.

Last week, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee, held a hearing exploring the question of whether Congress and the executive branch can conduct investigations into the same issues at the same time and invited our executive director, Danielle Brian, to testify on the history of such concurrent investigations.

Below are key excerpts from her written testimony:

Congress and the executive branch are not only capable of conducting concurrent investigations, they have successfully done so in the past.

Clearly, the controversy and debate over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the integrity of our democratic institutions demand Congressional attention. The American people have a right to know the truth.

The lack of common understanding across the country on what did or did not happen, and whether our rule of law is being properly followed, is fueling a damaging rift in our democracy. It is the role of Congress to provide the facts to the public.

The Project On Government Oversight recently released a report detailing best practices for Congressional investigations that lead to a much better chance of success.

  • True bipartisanship
  • Adequate tools and resources
  • Clear focus
  • Congressional Leadership support

The report also highlighted past investigations that were conducted concurrently with a criminal investigation including Teapot Dome, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the 1996 Campaign Finance Investigation, which Danielle also raised during her oral and written testimony before the Subcommittee. These Congressional investigations led to many reforms that would not have been achieved through only a criminal investigation.

Investigations by the executive branch such as those led by a Special Counsel can play a critical role in developing a criminal case,, but Congressional investigations have the responsibility and power to also uncover wrongdoing that may not be criminal in nature, determine whether policy reforms are required, and then to enact those reforms. In this case, without a Congressional investigation, significant public policy questions will remain unanswered:

  • Is the Foreign Agents Registration Act working or does it need to be reformed?
  • Does the federal government need to implement measures to protect the integrity of elections?
  • Are financial disclosure requirements for public officials being undermined by anonymous shell corporations and financial institution secrecy?
  • Have there been non-criminal abuses of power by the Department of Justice or White House? Has the application of justice been politicized?

None of these questions will be answered by criminal prosecutions.