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Inquiry Resolutions Serve Mixed Purposes

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) was not happy with the Obama administration’s cursory treatment of Congress before going to war in Libya on March 19. So, on April 7, he introduced two resolutions of inquiry directing the secretaries of State and Defense to provide the House with all documents in their possession relating to administration consultation with Congress on the decision to commit troops.

In a statement issued that day, Cole said, “Serious questions remain about the nature of the mission in Libya and whether the Obama administration’s decision to intervene is constitutional.” Cole went on to say the president “has ordered troops into a third war without congressional authorization or consultation as required by law.” The House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees responded by favorably reporting Cole’s resolutions by voice votes on May 11.

Resolutions of inquiry are one means of obtaining information from the executive branch. What gives them at least superficial appeal is that committees must report them back to the House within 14 legislative days of introduction or any Member can offer a floor motion to discharge them from committee.

More often than not, the committee receives the information from the administration before the deadline, then reports the resolution to the House adversely with the information. If a resolution is reported, whether favorably or adversely, only the chairman can call it up or, as is more likely, let it die.

According to House precedents, the proper form for a resolution of inquiry addressed to the president is to “request” information, together with a qualifying clause, “if not incompatible with the public interest,” especially regarding foreign policy matters. A resolution seeking information from a Cabinet department, on the other hand, usually “directs” the secretary to transmit the information to the House. The resolution must call for “facts” and not “opinions.”

According to a March 16 Congressional Research Service study, from 1947 to 2011, 290 resolutions of inquiry were introduced in the House, most requesting information from the president. Just fewer than half the resolutions were reported by committees, most adversely, and only a quarter of the resolutions introduced received floor consideration. The last one to receive a floor vote was introduced by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) in 1995 requesting information from President Bill Clinton on the Mexican economy and the International Monetary Fund. It was adopted, 407 to 21.

Not surprisingly, resolutions of inquiry are used most frequently by the minority party. The reasons for this are: (a) administrations are more likely to respond voluntarily to committee majorities; (b) the minority party’s information requests are usually ignored; and (c) the resolutions can be useful bludgeons to embarrass a president and spur oversight by recalcitrant committees.

The heaviest volume of resolutions of inquiry occurred from 1971 to 1975 (the Vietnam War era) and 2003 to 2006 (the Iraq War era). This correlates with another CRS finding: Most resolutions deal with defense, foreign relations and intelligence. In the first two years of President George W. Bush’s second term, 39 resolutions of inquiry were introduced, 38 of which were sponsored by minority Democrats. When the Democrats took control of the House in 2007, with Bush still in the White House, no resolutions were introduced. However, in President Barack Obama’s first two years as president, 29 resolutions of inquiry were introduced, all by minority Republicans.

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