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Legislatures’ Too-Often-Abdicated Role: Oversight

Holding a state’s executive branch accountable has a lot more impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans than congressional efforts to embarrass political opponents. We need to expect better of state lawmakers.

The Michigan House chamber
The Michigan House chamber in Lansing. Legislative oversight committees can have a greater impact on the lives of Americans than congressional investigations. (Shutterstock)
Investigations into Hunter Biden. A modern-day “Church Committee” to tackle the weaponization of the federal government. An accounting of what went wrong in Afghanistan. New year. New Congress. New investigations.

The balance of congressional power flipping to the president’s opposing party brings about investigations quicker than the FBI can find the next batch of classified documents. This is a tradition in America as old as the “factions” that worried some of the Founders and evolved into today’s political parties. Whether you think it’s a process necessary to hold government accountable or mere political theater probably depends on who you voted for and who sits in the White House.

But while political gamesmanship may drive the headlines, legislative bodies conducting proper oversight in a consistent manner is a necessary function if our government is to control itself as our Founders intended. A legislative branch that passes laws without assessing how well the executive branch carries them out is one that has failed our system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, this describes not only the U.S. Congress but also too many state legislatures.

When I served as chair of the Oversight Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives, we tackled issues that mattered to Michiganders on both sides of the aisle. Even though I am a staunch conservative Republican, I do not believe that oversight of the executive branch ought to be a partisan activity. It is the duty and responsibility of every elected legislator. Proper oversight is about holding government accountable, not seeking partisan advantage by targeting your opponents. It is to the great detriment of our representative democracy that so many legislators on both sides of the aisle do not behave as if they understand this.

It's true that committee hearings to ensure that a state agency has not overstepped its legal authority or squandered taxpayer dollars are boring compared to hearings on the latest D.C. scandal. However, those seemingly humdrum committees can have a greater impact on the lives of Americans than a hearing that does no more than attempt to embarrass political opponents. Legislators should use their committee assignments to illuminate where government is failing citizens and to follow up until reforms are accomplished. The most follow-up some committee members do these days is posting a “gotcha” moment on YouTube.

Perhaps there’s little hope of Congress changing its ways anytime soon, but there’s no excuse for state legislatures to abdicate oversight. Most substantive policy that affects the lives of everyday Americans happens at the state level: how their schools are run, where their roads and hospitals are built, and how well their police and fire personnel are equipped and trained.

During my last term on the Oversight Committee, we tackled unemployment fraud, contaminated drinking water in Benton Harbor, the governor’s dangerous practice of placing COVID-positive patients in nursing homes, and opening our secretary of state’s offices back up to the public. These matters dramatically affect the day-to-day lives of Michiganders. It would be unconscionable for state legislators, faced with such challenges, not to engage in genuine investigation, hold transparent hearings and pursue concrete reforms. And yet all too many state legislators across the country throw up their hands as if their governors, and not them as elected representatives of the people, have all the power. This must change.

It is time to stop incessantly watching D.C. Embrace federalism and turn our attention to Boise, Madison, Lansing and our other state capitals. We need to expect better of the lawmakers our citizens have elected to represent them there. We must demand they do the hard part of governing by keeping an ever-vigilant eye on the executive branch. And if they refuse to do their job, then it is incumbent on the voters to hold them accountable.

Imagine every state conducting proper oversight. Fifty legislatures scrutinizing how departments spend taxpayer dollars. Fifty legislatures ensuring that government agencies respect civil rights. Fifty legislatures keeping unelected state officials within their legal limits. Who knows — if American citizens got a taste of real legislative oversight in their statehouses, maybe they’d begin to hold their members of Congress to a higher standard.

Steven Johnson, a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives, is a fellow with the Center for Practical Federalism at State Policy Network, an association of state-level free-market think tanks.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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