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The Library of CongressCongressional Access to Executive Branch Information: Legislative Tools Summary

By Louis Fisher


Presidents and scholars identify a variety of constitutional principles and practices to justify the withholding of documents and papers from Congress. No doubt reasonable grounds may be presented for withholding these materials and for preventing some executive officials from testifying before congressional committees. However, these executive arguments are subject to legal and political limits. Executive claims can be offset by equally persuasive arguments that Congress needs access to information to fulfill its constitutional duties. In many cases, legal and constitutional principles are overridden by the politics of the moment and practical considerations. Efforts to discover enduring and enforceable norms in this area invariably fall short. This report begins by reviewing the precedents established during the Washington Administration for withholding documents from Congress. Close examination reveals that the scope of presidential privilege is often exaggerated. Congress had access to more documentation than is commonly believed and might have had more had it pressed for it. Subsequent sections focus on various forms of congressional leverage: the power of the purse, the power to impeach, issuing congressional subpoenas

Year: 2001
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