Congressional Inquiry in the MilitaryOctober 19, 2020
A Congressional Inquiry in the Military is not as powerful as most Servicemembers believe. It is very rare and uncommon for a Member of Congress or Senator to actually get involved to assist a Servicemember. Typically, this is what happens:
- A Servicemember files a complaint with their Senator/Congressman/Congresswoman (referred to as "Representative" from this point forward)
- The Representative's staff responds to the Servicemember and tells him/her that they are looking into the matter
- The Representative's staff contacts the Servicemember's Command, usually at the General Officer Level
- The Command informs the Representative's staff that they are going to look into the matter
- The Command, through their Staff Judge Advocate, gathers information and prepares a response
- The Command gives the response to the Representative's staff
- The Representative's staff gives the response to the Servicemember
Many Servicemembers think that a Representative can start their own, independent, investigation. This is not true. It really is more of an information gathering tool or a tool to let a higher Command know about some injustice going on under a lower Command.
If a Servicemember is facing an adverse action (Court-Martial, Investigation, Article 15, Separation Board, Board of Inquiry, etc.) it is generally NOT advisable to submit a Congressional Inquiry. For starters, anything said in the inquiry itself by the Servicemember CAN be used against them later on. Furthermore, all that the Command is going to respond with is "The Servicemember will receive due process." After such a response is given to the Representative, they have no power to do anything else. Commands will say, correctly, that they respond to Representatives as a courtesy.
That being said, there are situations where a Congressional Inquiry in the Military can be a powerful tool. One of the most common situations where they can help is as an information gathering tool. The Command will respond to the Representative's Office and provide an explanation for their response. Therefore, given the right situation, a Servicemember may be able to get some information they are having trouble getting from their chain of command. A Command isn't going to provide information about an on-going investigation; however, they may respond with information on other matters.
Another potential use for a Congressional Inquiry is to raise an issue to a higher level of Command. If a Servicemember makes a complaint to a Representative's office, as discussed above, the Representative's office will inform the Servicemember's higher Command. If the higher Command believes there is an issue they were unaware of, or a potential issue, they will likely start an investigation.
Finally, a Congressional Inquiry in the Military can also be used to subtly inform a Command that a third party (member of Congress) is tracking a certain issue, therefore potentially forcing the Command to make a certain decision.
These are just a couple of uses of a Congressional Inquiry in the Military. There are many situations where they could be helpful.
Filing a Congressional Inquiry is simple. First, a Servicemember needs identify who to file with. The most common member of Congress to file a complaint with is the Representative whose district the Servicemember lives in. However, often times a Representative from the district where the Servicemember grew up or has ties to (i.e. property, parents) will investigate a Servicemember's complaint. There are no formal limitations, and Servicemembers are at the discretion of each Representative on whether or not to receive the complaint.
After the Servicemember has identified with whom they want to file the complaint, all they have to do is contact that Representative's office and say that they are a member of the military and would like to file a Congressional Inquiry. The Representative's staff will likely have the Servicemember fill out a form or two and the process has begun.
Servicemembers need to carefully think through all possible outcomes before filing a Congressional Complaint. It is best to discuss these factors with a military lawyer before doing so. Furthermore, it is advisable that a lawyer either draft the complaint or review it before filing.
This article was written by Attorney Matthew Barry