What is legislative oversight?
Legislative oversight is the process by which a legislative body takes an active role in understanding and monitoring the performance of state government and applies this knowledge to its other three primary functions: making laws and public policy; setting budgets; and raising revenues. A Legislature must know and understand the operations of state government in order to make informed decisions on the laws that it passes and the financial decisions that it makes.
As government has grown and become increasingly complex, holding government accountable through effective legislative oversight has become increasingly challenging and important. Illustrative of the complexity of modern state government, Mississippi’s executive branch consists of numerous agencies, boards, and commissions operating without close coordination under a complex administrative network that includes foundations, advisory boards, independent administrative regulatory boards, regional federal officials, and local officials. One of the consequences of this fragmented authority is a great deal of disparity in the levels of efficiency and effectiveness achieved by various programs. Legislative oversight can untangle the administrative network and fix responsibility for corrective action. Adding to the complex state government framework, the tight fiscal constraints of recent years make legislative oversight and its focus on the effective and efficient utilization of public sector resources even more critical.
While legislative oversight can involve obtaining any type of information for consideration in legislative deliberations, some of its primary objectives are to
- identify and avoid inefficiency and waste in government (includes identification of extravagance, fraud, and misuse of public funds as well as identification of functions that are duplicative, overlap, or for any other reason warrant redefinition, redirection, redistribution and/or restructuring;)
- determine the extent of government’s effectiveness in carrying out public policy as set by the Legislature;
- determine whether responsible parties are administering the law fairly and properly throughout the state; and
- increase knowledge and understanding of government programs.
What is the history of the PEER Committee?
The PEER Committee is Mississippi’s legislative oversight entity. The authority for such oversight is based on Section 60 of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, which states that its legislative committees could “administer oaths, to send for persons and papers, and generally make legislative investigations effective.” The Legislature primarily exercised its oversight responsibilities through standing substantive committees of the Legislature.
Although the executive branch had oversight authority through the State Auditor, no legislative entity specifically charged with oversight duties existed until the Legislature created the General Legislative Investigative Committee (GLIC) in 1946. As its name implied, that committee’s primary duties were to investigate entities supported by state funds, suspected evasion of taxes or fees, the investment and expenditure of 16th Section funds, and counties’ purchase of equipment and supplies.
In 1969 the Legislature commissioned the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University to analyze its structural and procedural problems. In Eagleton’s resulting report, one recommendation was to institute the office of Legislative Auditor, with a staff that would study “how much was spent and whether it was spent in accordance with the intent of the legislature,” later expanding into performance auditing and examining the efficiency and effectiveness of departments and programs.
Although Mississippi never implemented the Legislative Auditor model, the Legislature subsequently created the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review in 1973. Loosely based on the law establishing GLIC, PEER’s enabling legislation added and defined “performance evaluation” as a primary duty and set the course for PEER’s current approach to legislative oversight.
Why is legislative oversight important?
Legislative oversight is an implied power of U.S. legislative bodies, derived from English tradition that holds that a representative assembly must be informed in order to properly execute its legislative functions properly. The following quotes argue for the importance of legislative oversight in a representative democracy.
Noted in 14 Gray 226 MASS. 1859:
The power of the general assembly to obtain information on any subject upon which it has power to legislate, with a view to its enlightenment and guidance, is so obviously essential to the performance of legislative functions that it has always been exercised without question.
President Woodrow Wilson made the following convincing argument for the need for legislative oversight at the federal level in his classic work
Congressional Government (1885):
It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents. Unless Congress have and use every means of acquainting itself with the acts and the disposition of the administrative agents of the government, the country must be helpless to learn how it is being served and unless Congress both scrutinize these things and sift them by every form of discussion, the country must remain in embarrassing, crippling ignorance of the very affairs which it is most important that it should understand and direct. The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function. The argument is not only that discussed and interrogated administration is the only pure and efficient administration, but, more than that, that the only really self-governing people is that people which discusses and interrogates its administration.
Telford Taylor, Grand Inquest, pp. 5-6, said:
A legislative body—be it the British House of Commons, or either house of Congress, or a state legislature—is endowed with the investigative power in order to obtain information, so that its legislative functions may be discharged in an enlightened rather than a benighted basis.