It is the foundation of American democracy at the federal, state and local levels: Our system of governance is based on three branches, each vested with powers and authorities to balance out and place checks on the other two. But a legislature must exercise that authority, which is crucial to its independence and effectiveness, for the principle to play out. Here are a few of the tools lawmakers have to flex their oversight muscles on the executive branch.
Fiscal and Policy Committees
The work of standing fiscal and policy committees is one of the most routine ways a legislature oversees the executive branch. During public hearings, state agencies explain the use of the funds the legislature appropriates to them, discuss their priorities and policy proposals, and respond to questions raised by legislators. Legislatures also can appoint special committees and task forces to investigate allegations of agency misfeasance. Every legislature has a budget, fiscal or appropriations committee, but in some states, such as Arizona, Colorado and Wisconsin, strong, bipartisan, joint committees aid in executive branch oversight.
Colorado’s bipartisan Joint Budget Committee, for instance, comprises three members from each chamber. The committee’s nonpartisan staff office provides research, analysis and recommendations to the committee. During the interim, the committee holds public hearings on executive branch agencies, and during session, it sponsors the annual budget bill. Colorado has processes that prompt the legislature’s other standing committees to work in tandem with the joint committee, in an effort to improve efficiencies in state operations and the use of state resources.
Legislative Audits and Evaluations
At least three-fourths of legislatures have created specialized legislative staff units to evaluate state government policies and programs. Their studies and findings—which can include program evaluations, policy analyses, performance and financial audits, investigatory work and recommendations for legislative action—address whether agencies are properly managing public programs and identify ways to improve programs and cut costs.
Most audit and evaluation offices have been in operation 25 years or more. Although responsibilities have evolved over time, most offices report directly to the legislature with some degree of independence.
Many have a mission similar to Wisconsin’s, which “supports the Legislature in its oversight of state government and its promotion of efficient and effective state operations by providing nonpartisan, independent, accurate and timely audits and evaluations of public finances and the management of public programs.”
Oklahoma was the latest state to add legislative oversight capacity when it created the Legislative Office of Financial Transparency in 2019. The office will focus on performance outcomes, duplication of services and how well executive branch expenditures relate to its mission.
Colorado was the first state to use sunset reviews in 1976. Since then, 44 states have used some form of the process to determine whether an entity or agency is still needed. Over more than four decades, the work of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, for example, has resulted in the abolishment of 41 agencies and the consolidation of another 51. It has had an estimated positive fiscal impact of $1 billion, returning $19 for every $1 spent.
According to a 2007 Connecticut report, “one of the attractions of sunset … was that it provided a tangible mechanism to strengthen legislative oversight at a time when state legislatures had little to no resources … to assess what happened to the laws they passed.”
A Full Array of Power Tools
There are other tools legislatures can use to check executive powers, including reviewing and in some cases changing executive branch rules and regulations, overriding gubernatorial vetoes, rejecting gubernatorial appointments, and impeaching and trying governors and other state officials. Legislatures yield some powers more regularly than others, but altogether they create a robust cache of oversight tools to use in a system designed for a constant game of tug of war.
Natalie Wood directs NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.