The House’s special committee investigating the events of the January 6 Capitol riot has drawn a lot of attention to the issue over its multiple public hearings over the summer. The public hearings, according to legal expert Samuel Dewey, drew on other noteworthy congressional investigations as inspiration for how it would proceed.
Congressional hearings date back to 1792 in the House of Representatives and 1818 in the Senate. They are an essential tool that Congress can use to not only gather pertinent facts about an issue but also draw the public’s attention to these issues.
Below are five well-known congressional investigations in history that paved the way for the January 6 committee’s work.
Committee to Investigate the Ku Klux Klan
Congress created a committee in 1871 meant to investigate incidents of intimidation and violence against Black voters across the country. Over the next year, the committee interviewed more than 600 witnesses, who testified to systemic violence being committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The investigations received plenty of media attention, yet many U.S. citizens still questioned whether the KKK even existed. The minority report in the investigation was produced by Democrats, and used racist language that ultimately legitimized the actions of the KKK.
Following the investigations, much of this language that was contained in the minority report was used by segments of the population for years — showing the profound long-term impact congressional investigations can have.
A congressional investigation in the early 1920s helped to uncover corruption in the administration of then-President Warren G. Harding. Senators on the panel uncovered evidence that showed the government leased federal oil fields in secret to some of their political allies. In total, the contracts were valued at more than $3 billion in today’s money.
The committee’s investigation resulted in Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, stepped down from his position. He was convicted of bribery charges later on, making him the first member of a Cabinet sentenced to serve time in prison.
Another congressional investigation in the 1950s was dubbed the Kefauver Committee, named after Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who served as its chair.
The committee investigated news articles that were suggesting organized crime was playing a corrupt role in local government. The hearings attracted the attention of nearly the entire country. Estimates say roughly 90% of TVs in the country watched the hearings.
This was perhaps the first public spectacle in congressional hearing history. Mobsters were interviewed, as were former elected officials and the girlfriends of mobsters on live TV.
Perhaps the most infamous scandal in U.S. history, the Watergate scandal was investigated after a unanimous 77-0 vote in the Senate to establish a special committee.
Then-President Richard Nixon never cooperated with the committee’s investigation, and he directed all of his aides to fall in line — claiming executive privilege in the process. It’s the similar tactic that former President Donald Trump has used in the January 6 committee’s investigation.
The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the Senate committee in their bid to gain access to the documents that overwhelmingly proved the president had participated in a cover-up for the Watergate break-in.
Spying on U.S. Citizens
Samuel Dewey explains that, during its investigations, the Watergate Committee uncovered evidence that the intelligence community was spying on U.S. citizens unconstitutionally.
As such, a separate committee was established to investigate. Over 16 months, the committee uncovered evidence that each presidential administration starting with FDR through Nixon abused the authority it had in some way.
About Samuel Dewey
Samuel Dewey is a successful lawyer and former Senior Counsel to the US House of Representatives Financial Services Committee and Chief Investigator and Counsel to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. Mr Dewey specializes in: (1) white collar investigations, compliance, and litigation; (2) regulatory compliance and litigation; and (3) complex public policy matters. Within these fields Mr. Dewey is considered an expert in Congressional investigations and attendant matters. Mr. Dewey has a BA in Political Science, a JD from Harvard, and is admitted to practice law in Washington, DC, and Maryland.