Legislative Oversight Processes in U.S. States

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Virginia Tech


State legislatures have variable levels of professionalism. Measures of state legislative professionalism typically include metrics such as the number of legislative staff, legislative session length, and legislator compensation. This research considers the influence of variability in levels of legislative professionalism on the state’s oversight process. Few prior studies engage the legislative oversight process in states. To fill this gap, this research takes a grounded theory approach that uses thirty-three interviews with legislators, legislative staff, committee staff, and legislative research organizations in five states to test existing concepts and to develop new directions for research. The current scholarship on oversight and legislative institutions emphasizes the importance of broad factors like elections and committees, as well as more specific concepts like inter-branch conflict, partisanship, and legislative term-limits. This research confirms and extends those ideas, reaching the conclusion that oversight in states is a deeply political action. A central contribution of this work is a consideration of how the oversight process in states operates on the ground. The interviews uncover that many measures of professionalism often perform in unforeseen ways than what might expected. For instance, a lengthy legislative session can prohibit oversight actors from performing oversight functions. Conversely, long legislative interim periods provide actors with the space to conduct meaningful reviews of administrative action. This research also advances understandings of state legislative research organizations – like the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and Texas Sunset Commission – which play a vital role in performing meaningful legislative oversight. To catalyze these ideas a new concept, the oversight entrepreneur, is used to describe how stakeholders use the oversight process to achieve their preferences and enhance their reputations. The interviews contained here also expose the importance of each state’s individual context – including Constitutional, institutional, normed and historical factors. The dissimilarities that play out across states (and their secondary effects) demonstrate that future scholars would be well served to adopt caution in the application of concepts across contexts.



legislatures, state politics, oversight, legislative-executive relations, qualitative methods, interviews