ISSUE BRIEF: The Historical and Legal Basis for the Exercise of Congressional Oversight Authority

With the recent change in leadership of the House of Representatives following the 2018 midterm elections, there has been considerable discussion about what role the 116th Congress will play in holding the Trump Administration and others accountable to the text and values of the U.S. Constitution, as well as to federal law more generally.


The House of Representatives could, if it chooses, play a significant role—investigating a range of critical matters such as the misuse of funds by cabinet officials, connections between President Trump’s campaign and Russia, whether the President or other officials are improperly benefitting financially from their offices, and whether the Executive Branch is properly enforcing environmental and other public health and safety laws.

Congress’s power to investigate has deep roots in our political tradition, and the ability of Congress to investigate is embedded in our national charter, which gives Congress the power to legislate. As the Supreme Court has recognized, “[a] legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information respecting the conditions which the legislation is intended to affect or change; and where the legislative body does not itself possess the requisite information—which not infrequently is true—recourse must be had to others who do possess it.” Given its function, the congressional power to investigate is quite broad, “indeed co-extensive with the power to legislate.” Moreover, should the Executive Branch refuse to comply with congressional requests for information, Congress has tools available to enforce its oversight authority, including bringing a civil action in court against recalcitrant Executive Branch officials.

The House of Representatives of the 116th Congress can do what the previous House declined to do: engage in robust and vigorous oversight of the Executive Branch. Doing so will ensure that Congress and the American people have a more complete picture of what this Administration is doing, the extent to which it is (or is not) faithfully complying with the U.S. Constitution and federal law, and the ways in which Congress could legislate to correct any wrongdoing and to better serve the American people.