On what basis is congress subpoena'ing University of Columbia's president (other presidents of private universities)? What's the intent here?

Congress is in charge of passing laws right... so is the idea here to eventually pass new laws based on what is said in these testimonies?

I do not understand what interest congress has in this issue. It's private university... the questions don't seem to be legal in nature. The intent doesn't seem to be to figure out if laws were broken. So why is Congress involved at all?


3 Answers 3


On what basis is congress subpoena'ing University of Columbia's president (other presidents of private universities)?

Congress has very broad subpoena power to investigate situations that take place in the real world to determine if it is possible, feasible, or desirable to make new laws related to almost anything.

It can also use its subpoena powers to determine if existing laws have been violated, or if existing laws have been enforced inappropriately.

While the Congressional subpoena power isn't absolute, in terms of permissible subject-matters, it comes close.

The issue is that Congress needs to have some idea about what is going on outside the Capitol to do its job, and doesn't want to be beholden strictly to private sector news reports or data gathered by the Executive Branch.

For example, maybe the National Enquirer says that protests on campuses over the Israeli-Hamas war are real, but are actually being conducted by disguised lizard people and Yetis; the New York Times may say that those protests are real and are being conducted by regular human college students in response to news reports on that situation; and some conservative bloggers may deny that there protests are happening at all claiming that they are just a big Deep Fake produced by a mainstream media conspiracy. Suppose further that members of Congress don't agree on which version of the story is correct. Congress, rather than relying on secondary sources to determine what is really happening, may want to subpoena some witnesses with first hand knowledge to tell them, under oath, what is really happening.

There are all sorts of reasons that Congress would have legitimate interest in the affairs of private higher educational institutions, not least of which is the fact that Congress provides a substantial part of the funding for these institutions.

There are significant constitutional limitations on what kind of legislation Congress can pass. But until somebody investigates the facts, Congress can't know, when there is a dispute regarding the relevant facts, if existing laws are working just fine, or if existing laws are giving rise to something that some member of Congress thinks is a problem and should be changed in a way that Congress has the legal authority to address. By its very nature, Congress routinely needs information about matters for which existing data collection is inadequate to provide guidance to it in legislating, because no existing laws call for that kind of data collection.

  • 1
    We can imagine a different world where that this type of information gathering would be the responsibility of the Department of Education, who would prepare a report to Congress. But in our society the DoE is in the Executive Branch and Congress can't direct them except by passing laws requiring them to do so.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 30 at 21:41

Acknowledging that a lot of what they do is political theater, the literal non-snarky answer is that Congress authorizes federal funding* and universities such as the one you mentioned get a lot of federal research or program grants. It’s the basis for Title IX** having any effect on private unis.

*U.S. Constitution Article 1, Section 8

**The wording is any institution receiving “federal financial assistance”

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    As well as the fact that federal student financial aid can be used at Columbia. Commented Apr 30 at 20:47
  • @NateEldredge As well as the fact that all sorts of other federal laws (e.g. federal civil rights laws) apply at private universities just like they do everywhere else in the U.S.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 30 at 20:49

The power

Congress has the right to subpoena anyone or anything to appear before it. This power is not in the Constitution but is a common law power inherited from the British Parliament and accepted and acknowledged by the Supreme Court.

In theory, either chamber could issue a subpoena to have someone appear on the floor but, in practice, they are issued by the chair of Congressional Committees for the person or thing to appear before the committee.

The reason

Because they can is the legal answer. The Supreme Court has also determined that such a subpoena is not subject to judicial review unless and until Congress seeks to enforce the subpoena through either a civil action or contempt of Congress.

Why this particular subpoena? That’s a political question, try asking it at https://politics.stackexchange.com/questions

  • The power is also established by statute.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 1 at 1:29
  • @ohwilleke that raises a chicken and egg problem- where does the power to legislate themselves that power come from?
    – Dale M
    Commented May 1 at 2:52
  • The necessary and proper clause.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 1 at 4:46
  • @ohwilleke but the argument that it’s “necessary and proper” rests on the precedent that the English Parliament did it.
    – Dale M
    Commented May 1 at 21:32
  • It also rests on the meaning of words in modern English that goes back 600 years since it transitioned from Middle English, but that isn't very problematic. The intent to give Congress the authority to get the job done is clear on the face of the constitution even without the gloss of English parliamentary precedents.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 2 at 0:18

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