- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

It's a Capitol Hill rite of passage older than the Constitution: The first of many congressional investigations for this year this one concerning the collapse and political ties of Enron Corporation will take place Thursday.

During the American Revolution, the investigating committee arose as the Continental Congress, the nation's governing body, tried to deal with its numerous problems both before and after the formal break with Great Britain.

Of major interest to the Continental Congress was the military campaign of the war, with the first investigating committee dispatched to General George Washington's camp near Boston. Leaving Philadelphia on Oct. 4, 1775, the committee of three, which included Benjamin Franklin, arrived at Washington's headquarters 11 days later. They spent 10 days interviewing numerous officials and returned home with a report to the Continental Congress, which agreed with its recommendation to increase military forces and pay.

Because there was no executive branch of government during the war the presiding officer of the Continental Congress was a rotating position with no power the investigating committee was essentially a check on individuals responsible for carrying out congressional resolutions. That situation changed with the adoption and implementation of the Constitution by 1789.

With the exception of impeachment proceedings, no provision of the Constitution delineated congressional authority to investigate the conduct of the other two branches, but the rationale to do so was bolstered by the precedent of the Continental Congress as well as the necessity to have adequate information on which to base proposed legislation.

The first congressional investigation emerged against this background in 1792, precipitated by the biggest Indian victory ever over Army troops even bigger than General George A. Custer's sad fate at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

Some 657 soldiers out of a total of 1,400 had been killed in a single encounter in Ohio in late 1791. The House created a special committee of seven members to investigate, formally requesting records from Secretary of War Henry Knox and eventually submitting a report to Congress, which was never acted upon.

The committee faulted President Washington's administration for mismanagement, noting that Knox was too tight-fisted, spending less than what Congress had authorized.

From 1792 to the early 20th century, Congress employed investigating committees more than 300 times. The focus ranged from the conduct of military affairs to improper activities of members of Congress and the executive branch to social and economic crises, such as riots in New Orleans in 1866 or severe economic downturns.

In 1886, for example, a House committee investigated a wave of strikes that had put the economy in a tailspin. The committee traveled 4,880 miles, examined 578 witnesses, and compiled a thick, two-volume report that found it difficult to come up with preventive measures.

By the 1920s, investigating committees had fallen into disrepute, in large part because they were so numerous 60 probes took place between 1900 to 1925. They also too often became "smelling committees," partisan inquiries designed to take down leaders of the opposing parties.

Journalist Walter Lippmann made reference in 1922 to "that legalized atrocity, the congressional investigation, in which congressmen, starved of their legitimate food for thought, go on a wild and feverish manhunt, and do not stop at cannibalism."

Investigative committees have proliferated in number and scope over recent decades with their share of defenders and critics, mostly correlated to party affiliation. Historians, on the other hand, have tried to judge each investigation on its own merits, just as presidents, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices are judged.

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