Who Polices the Administrative State?
by Kenneth Lowande, University of Michigan
In the U.S. Congress, most oversight of the executive branch is conducted by individual legislators who contact agencies privately. This study uses the internal correspondence logs of bureaucratic agencies to re-evaluate the conventional hypothesis that ideological disagreement drives oversight. To identify the effect of this disagreement, I exploit the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, which shifted the ideological orientation of agencies through turnover in agency personnel. Contrary to existing research, I find ideological conflict has little effect on oversight, whereas committee roles and narrow district interests are primary drivers. The findings may indicate that absent incentives induced by public hearings, legislator behavior is driven by concerns about the quality of public policy – rather than ideology. The results also suggest collective action in Congress may pose greater obstacles to effective oversight than previously thought. Private contacts sometimes reveal systemic problems that require additional coordination from legislators to be solved.