Strengthening Checks and Balances

Necessary and Proper: Best Practices for Congressional Investigations

Members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the investigation over the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program


A breaking national scandal, disaster, or crisis often results in a call for an independent investigation to understand the situation and the ramifications for the country. While many will want to get to the truth objectively and completely, many will also have partisan motives, and the question quickly becomes one of “who”: Who has the ability, credibility, and independence to perform an effective and fair investigation? The Administration, a federal agency such as the Department of Justice, an independent body such as a convened “blue ribbon” commission of outside experts, a committee of Congress? Decision-makers have turned to each at different times and in different circumstances during our nation’s history.

Congress plays a constitutionally important, distinct, and sometimes complementary role to executive branch investigations. Compared to Department of Justice investigations that are focused on criminal wrongdoing, Congress has a broader mandate and can unearth troubling information that may be significant, but not necessarily criminal, in nature. Congress is also uniquely positioned for considering legislative solutions to address systemic problems. Special or select Congressional committees investigated Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, abuses by the US intelligence community, the federal response to the Katrina disaster, the attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi, and many other important and even historic topics. Some investigations were successful, some were not. Many of the committees developed needed reforms. While there is no perfect investigative committee, with the right strategy Congress can make the process work and get to the truth.

When it comes to Congressional committees tasked to perform major federal-level investigations, success is dependent on many factors. Some of those factors are out of the control of any investigation, such as the political, social, and historic environment. However, there are key best practices for a Congressional investigation that lead to a much better chance of success:

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

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