Congress, the Court and its Surprises

By Drew Lemon ’24

Drew Lemon ’24

For many years, the United States Congress has exercised its powers to investigate controversial topics, including foreign policy, presidential power and federal spending. Often, Congress has used its legal authority to compel other authorities to provide information, as members carry out their necessary and proper power to make and execute federal laws. However, the U.S. Supreme Court continues to grapple with challenging questions on the limits of Congressional authority to compel information. The Court recently decided to dismiss a case that would have addressed a pressing question regarding Congress’ authority to demand information from an executive agency. This case represents a hallmark of separation of powers, and the Federalist debate. 

Carnahan v. Maloney could have established a new precedent for constitutional power. It challenged the parameters of separations of powers by addressing how members of Congress can legally function with executive agencies. This case presents the courts with a familiar area of constitutional law in an uncharted context. 

The case was scheduled to be heard during the court’s October 2023 term but was dismissed by the court in June. This decision was a mistake. The court’s failure to rule on this pressing issue has only kicked the can down the road. A future issue pertaining to Congress’ function with executive agencies is bound to arise again.    

 Carnahan v. Maloney

In 2017, then House Oversight Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and a few other members of Congress issued a section 2954 request for information to the General Services Administration (GSA). They were seeking information about the lease agreement between then-President Donald Trump and the infamously renowned old post office building in Washington, D.C.

The GSA refused to respond, stating that “individual members of Congress . . . do not have the authority to conduct oversight in the absence of specific delegation by a full house, committee, or subcommittee.” Cummings and other members immediately filed suit against then-acting administrator of the GSA Robin Carnahan. A district court dismissed the suit for a lack of standing. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed and remanded the lower court’s ruling. Carnahan appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which initially agreed to hear the case.  

What Needs to be Settled?

The central question before the U.S. Supreme Court was: do individual members of Congress have Article III standing to sue an executive agency to compel it to disclose information that the members have requested under 5 U.S.C., § 2954?  

Following arguments, the high court vacated the judgment and sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit with instructions to dismiss the case.  

But what about the precedent this case would have established? Do members of Congress have the legal ability to sue an executive agency to provide information? This is a matter not previously addressed, so substantive precedent remains nonexistent.  

Conflicting Law

The question in this case involves both constitutional and statutory law. Article III of the U.S. Constitution establishes the judicial branch and gives the Supreme Court vested judicial power over all matters dealing with the Constitution.  

5 U.S.C. § 2954 is a federal statute that requires an executive agency to disclose information requested on matters relating to the committee’s jurisdiction, if requested by seven members of the House Committee on Government Operations, or five members of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. 

While these laws were considered, the fate of this case was ultimately decided by the parties themselves as the plaintiffs voluntarily decided to vacate the case in district court. While there are no other cases that resemble the facts of this one, the court has only dismissed cases based on similar facts a few times. One example was Pacific Rivers Council, where the Court vacated and remanded for dismissal where respondents have abandoned their claims after grants of certiorari.

 No Precedent Established  

With the judgment in Carnahan v. Maloney vacated, the Supreme Court cannot rule on whether or not members of Congress have constitutional standing to sue executive agencies. This is an important legal question with potentially wide ranging implications. This case would have challenged the limits of not only statutory law which grants Congress immense authority to retrieve executive agency information, but also questions of standing for members to sue under Article III of the Constitution. As Congress conducts more investigations, members are looking to executive agencies as a primary source of information. Whether Congress can legally sue an agency to obtain information is a dynamic question that the courts will soon be forced to address.