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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.

Those patterns make Cole’s resolutions of inquiry something of an anomaly since he is a majority party Member. Moreover, his resolutions are directed at Cabinet secretaries instead of the president — the official charged by the War Powers Act with consulting with Congress before committing troops to hostilities.

Although both committees reported favorably on Cole’s resolution, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report expressed skepticism about its necessity: “In light of the already robust oversight by the Committee on Foreign Affairs of developments in Libya and U.S.-Libya policy, before and after the recent intervention in Libya, it is unclear that the documentation sought by the resolution would add to Congressional understanding of these issues.”

Perhaps that example helps to explain the CRS’ curious finding that while the requested information was produced in 30 percent of the instances in which resolutions of inquiry were introduced, it is not clear that any resolutions were directly responsible for its production. That’s essentially the Foreign Affairs Committee’s point about Cole’s requested information.

Nevertheless, Cole can still claim some credit for reminding Congress of its war powers responsibilities for Libya. On Friday, those efforts bore fruit when the House adopted a hybrid, sense of the House/quasi-inquiry resolution by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and soundly rejected a nonbinding Libya withdrawal resolution by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). The Speaker’s resolution not only hortatively barred U.S. ground troops from Libya but directed the president to report to Congress in 14 days on 21 matters of fact, estimate and opinion about the operation. Cole’s consultation language was also folded into the resolution. Congress may not yet be decisive on war with Libya, but it is increasingly restive.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.