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I've seen so many congressional investigations over the years, and generally they all feel pointless to me.

In particular, every case the news talks about the investigation for a little while, you hear about questions and answers made, but ultimately at its conclusion it seems no substantial new information was revealed and no action comes about as a result of the investigation. At most the investigative body makes 'recommendations' that are then promptly ignored and forgotten without any lasting impact.

As I see it, the main reason for these investigations is not hopes of some actionable results occurring but politics. It's an attempt to be seen as doing something in cases that the investigation is bipartisan. More often though it's primarily an attempt to keep the media, and thus the general populations, attention on an alleged wrongdoing of the opposite political party to make them look worse and hopefully hurt their votes. In other words, it's political theater and nothing more.

So can anyone convince me that congressional investigations are more then just politics? Can you point to real actionable results that came from investigations? And by results I mean more than a forgotten report. How often can real results come out of these investigations, outside of the political ones I allege of the real motivation for such investigations?

Please note I'm not asking about any single investigation; I'm talking about trends I've seen across decades. Please don't start fighting over any specific politically charged investigations justification. I'm more interested in total historical trends and the likely results of any theoretical future investigation leading to results than people fighting over whether or not they support a specific investigation.

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    The investigations that make the news tend to be about hard and/or controversial issues, for which concrete solutions are difficult to achieve (especially if they require bipartisan support), so you don't generally see any results. But probably lots of less newsworthy legislation was preceded by investigations that you never see (unless you're a regular CSPAN viewer).
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:35
  • @Barmar So you are arguing a sort of sharpshooter perspective? I can see the argument, but am currently skeptical given some of the less controversial investigations I've seen without results. Still I'd be open to being convinced otherwise if you can cite sources backing up the premise.
    – dsollen
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:37
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    Well, there's also the general problem that Congress is highly dysfunctional, so not much gets done in general. So most of the time they're not fundraising to keep their jobs, they're just performing political theatre.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:42
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    depending on whether that would count as congressional investigations, Sarbanes Oxley Act : the Senate Banking Committee held its first of a series of oversight hearings on "Accounting and Investor Protection Issues Raised by Enron and Other Public Companies." took place after the Senate "poked its nose into stuff". It might also be good to keep in mind that Congress doesn't have to be dysfunctional, it's just that way because primary voters reward partisanship Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 0:01
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    If by result you mean criminal indictments, it's not in Congress' competence. All they can do in case such indictments are required is the recommendation to the Justice Department, which then delegates the task to the appropriate judicial institution. Also, legislative results never come by the next day after one or another report from the investigative committee is released. This work requires quite a much time. Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 8:27

3 Answers 3

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Nominating Sarbanes Oxley, passed in 2002 because it is relatively recent.

Ten years ago last month, the Senate Banking Committee held its first of a series of oversight hearings on "Accounting and Investor Protection Issues Raised by Enron and Other Public Companies."

This resulted in Sarbanes Oxley Act which sometimes get criticized, but did bring some much needed liability for financial statement fraud and saner auditing practices.

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Not infrequently (maybe even most of the time), hearings that have an investigative component lead to legislation, with the real audience being fellow members of Congress.

I'd also venture that the fact that investigative hearings are to some extent political theater is what makes them effective when they do work. The whole point of an investigative hearing is to call attention to someone which can in turn create the political will to do something.

Legislative hearings about factory safety incidents led to early work place safety regulations.

The Pujo Committee Hearings referenced by JoeW in his answer "inspired public support for ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment that authorized a federal income tax, passage of the Federal Reserve Act, and passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act."

Hearings about the 1929 stock market crash including the Pecora Commission hearings that commenced in 1932, led to the 1933 Securities Act and the 1934 Securities Exchange Act.

The McCarthy era "Red Scare" hearings (which were absolutely political theater by the way) led to anti-communist legislation, some of which was later held to be unconstitutional, but much of which remains on the books.

Hearings about abuses by covert operatives by the Church Committee starting in 1976 led to a variety of reforms including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (which would subsequently be amended, for example, by the famous and controversial Patriot Act).

Congressional hearings were pivotal in the passage of CERCLA (i.e. the Superfund law for the cleanup of toxic waste dumps) (from the second link):

CERCLA was enacted by Congress in 1980 in response to the threat of hazardous waste sites, typified by the Love Canal disaster in New York, and the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky.

Investigative hearings about conduct of President Trump led to him being impeached by the U.S. House twice, although he was not convicted on the impeachment charges and removed from office by the U.S. Senate on either occasion. It is entirely possible that this was a factor in President Trump's failure to win re-election in 2020, which was a reasonably close election, although there is probably no way that this can be definitively proven one way or the other.

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Yes, they can have some real meaning and it just depends on the purpose of them

Congress in 2019: A brief history of congressional investigations

Pujo Committee Hearings

The House investigates Wall Street Banks in the Pujo Committee Hearings of 1912-1913. According to Bean, Congressman Arsene Pujo (D-La.) “exposed how a handful of major Wall Street Banks had acquired control over vast commercial enterprises”

Teapot Dome Scandal

The Senate investigates the Teapot Dome Scandal, 1922-24. As a result of this inquiry, Interior Secretary Albert Fall was the first former Cabinet officer to go to jail because of crimes committed while in office, and Senator Thomas Walsh (D-Mont.) became a national hero.

Pecora hearings

The Senate investigates the role banks played in the 1929 stock market crash in the Pecora hearings. Ferdinand Pecora was hired by Senator Peter Norbeck (R-S.D.). He subpoenaed big-shot bankers and subjected them to intense grilling about their role in the stock market crash that began the Great Depression and in so doing captivated the nation. He made front page headlines, and the investigations resulted not only in many new laws regulating the stock market but in a new word “Banksters” used to describe the men who had caused the crash.

The Watergate Hearings

The Watergate Hearings 1973-1974) investigated Richard Nixon’s 1972 election campaign and were triggered by the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate in June of 1972. Like the McCarthy hearings, they were televised and held the attention of a fascinated public. They resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon just ahead of impeachment votes in the House and conviction in the Senate. The hearings also led to several new laws governing campaign finance. Here’s a famous clip of White House Counsel John Dean – who eventually blew the whistle on Nixon’s law breaking – testifying before Senator Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) who headed the investigation.

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    In terms of watergate I have to wonder if Nixon really needed to resign from office. We have seen 4 impeachments in the history of the USA, every one failed to remove a president and none has (so far...) lead to legal complications that would need an impeachment later. I have to wonder if Nixon could have gotten away with it if he just had the audacity to refuse to admit to anything. Given the nature of partisan politics, the need to back your sides president no matter what they did, and the absurdly high bar for removal I doubt a president will ever be removed.
    – dsollen
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 1:29
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    @dsollen It was members of his own party that gave him the warning to take that action which suggests that he would have been facing issues he if didn't resign.
    – Joe W
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 1:58
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    @dsollen that's fair to say based on the current state of things, but there was far more of a gradient within political parties at that time. There's a pretty good concensus that he would have been removed if he was stubborn enough not to resign. There definitely is politics involved in asking him to resign instead of being removed, which could have made the blow to the republican party's credibility even bigger
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 6:51
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    @ВалерийЗаподовников He resigned because that was his only option besides getting impeached and likely convicted in the trial. Considering the fact that members of his own party advised him to resign suggests that if it went to trial he would be impeached and once the house voted to impeach he was stuck and unable to get out of the trial. More info on him resigning because of a lack of options. constitutionus.com/presidents/why-did-nixon-resign
    – Joe W
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 18:21
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    @ВалерийЗаподовников And the trial in the senate is not part of the judicial system, they can still convict regardless of a pardon being issued or if a crime has not occurred in the first place. You need to remember that impeachment is not part of the legal process and congress can impeach and convict as they see fit.
    – Joe W
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 17:14

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