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#AskCokie: Listeners Want To Know About Congressional Oversight


I'm Steve Inskeep here to Ask Cokie. Actually, you get to ask Cokie about how the government and politics work. And today, we'll be asking about congressional oversight, Congress looking into the activities of a president, which has happened a lot through our history.


HOWARD BAKER: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

JOSEPH WELCH: Mr. McCarthy, have you no sense of decency, sir?

OLIVER NORTH: I must confess to you that I thought using the ayatollah's money to support the Nicaraguan resistance was the right idea.

BILL CLINTON: It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.

INSKEEP: Dramatic events in American history from Watergate to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, all of which, in one way or another, involved investigations by Congress. And now different congressional committees are investigating Russia's interference in the U.S. election and its connections to President Trump's White House. And so let's ask Cokie about that.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: And here's our first question.

LEAH: This is Leah from Los Angeles. My question for Cokie is - does Congress alone have the responsibility to investigate a president, or are there other entities as well? And - when has Congress chosen to investigate presidents in the past? Was it mainly a political decision?

INSKEEP: OK. So whose job is it to look into the president's activity?

ROBERTS: It can be any branch of government. There have been presidential commissions looking into presidential activities; the judiciary, certainly, if they think laws have been broken. In fact, that clip we've just heard from President Clinton was in response to a special prosecutor. And in fact, it took a while for Congress to establish the fact that it had the right to look at what was going on in the executive branch. And it was when they looked at the failure of Arthur St. Clair, a general who tried to fight the Indians in what's now your home state of Indiana - and failed that Congress investigated it and basically set up their right to it by doing it. And the Supreme Court has held them up over the years.

INSKEEP: Oh, it doesn't say in the Constitution that Congress will investigate the administration?

ROBERTS: No, but it's implied by the legislative powers. And it certainly was discussed at the Constitutional Convention.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking about - we heard some archival tape there from Watergate, which was investigated by the FBI. So this is the executive branch investigating the executive branch.

ROBERTS: Well, it's sort of quasi-judicial, I guess (laughter).

INSKEEP: So there's a lot of ways that this can go. We have a question now from Sarah Eggers, who sent it by Twitter. And the question is - what is the history of using congressional oversight versus independent committees for investigations?

So use the regular committees or set up a special committee to look into something?

ROBERTS: Which we're hearing about right now in terms of the Russian involvement in the past election. Should it be the intelligence committees in Congress that investigate this, or should some special committee be set up? They've done it both ways. Iran-Contra was set up as a congressional committee. The 9/11 Commission was set up by Congress but as an independent committee. And then there are also presidential commissions, like the Warren Commission to investigate the death of President Kennedy. And then later, the Congress came back and established their own commission that came up with a different answer. So the conspiracy theories on that continue to abound.

INSKEEP: One more question here from Nina asking - how can we compel a committee to oversight?

Now, that's not a theoretical question at the moment because you have a Republican Congress, a Republican president and a lot of Democrats demanding that that Congress get in there and go after the president.

ROBERTS: And that's the way you compel is public pressure. Jason Chaffetz, who's head of the oversight committee in the House, is going to meetings where people are screaming at him, do your job. And the truth is, Steve, students of Congress feel that Congress should do a lot more just day-by-day oversight of the agencies of government that are under their jurisdiction. So instead of a big brouhaha about the Veterans Administration, look at it on a regular basis. But that's boring, you know. It's not sexy. And so Congress tends not to do that.

INSKEEP: Have there been occasions where a Congress controlled by the same party is willing to investigate a president of that party?

ROBERTS: Abraham Lincoln faced a Republican Congress that was investigating the leak of his State of the Union message to the newspapers. His wife was suspected of being the leaker.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln?


INSKEEP: OK. Did they actually nail that down?

ROBERTS: The president asked the Congress please not to embarrass him, and they complied because it was a Republican Congress.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: That's Cokie Roberts. And each Wednesday, you help us Ask Cokie about how politics and the government work. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.