The limits of legislative oversight
State government should be smaller, less centralized and closer to the people
The founders of our nation not only perceived the challenges to good government in their own day but anticipated the problems most likely to arise. Their division of government power into three carefully delineated branches created a powerful check on despotism, but –despite the brilliance of their effort– the balance between the branches was never perfect, and the imbalance has worsened with time.
“In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates,” wrote James Madison in the Federalist 51. What’s necessary isn’t inevitable or eternal, and the growth of the executive branch at the expense of the legislative has been central to the story of government in America at every level.
Federal, state, and municipal executive agencies employee millions nationwide, and constitute the main contact most of us have with government. While the number of bureaucrats and their involvement in our lives increase, our elected representatives grow more distant. Members of our first Congress represented about 30,000 people each. That number has grown to over 700,000, fundamentally changing our relationship with those who represent us.
Less obvious, perhaps —unless you’ve served in a legislature— is the way in which executive expansion has altered the relationship between the branches. It’s not just the total number of executive branch agencies and employees, though that’s part of it; the sheer complexity of the bureaucracy makes it almost impossible for a legislator to figure out what’s going on within it.
As a freshman senator swept in with the Reagan landslide of 1984, I was made the Senate chair of the Human Services committee. I had neither an educational background nor professional experience in the subject. With the help of a few excellent staffers and by dint of some reasonably hard work, I was able to stay on top of the job. In my single term in the majority, I crafted and sponsored legislation to establish a state home-care program, which has served tens of thousands of seniors and saved billions in taxpayer dollars over the last 30 years.
But I never came close to making the fundamental changes in the administration of the social welfare system that we needed, and still need. The more I studied the field, the more I recognized my own ignorance and the limits of the staff support available to me. Above all, I realized that I was dependent on the very people whose agencies I wanted to restructure for the information and insight I needed to institute sweeping reform.
The complexity of government has led legislatures generally to cede their powers to the executive branch. Though the General Assembly is responsible for writing the budget, in our state the first draft of this critical document comes (with great fanfare) from the governor; the legislature really does no more than tinker around the edges.
Yet it would never occur to legislators to prepare an entire budget themselves; that would require a far larger staff and a different vision of the role of the General Assembly. In essence, a legislative bureaucracy would have to be created to oversee the executive bureaucracy. That won’t happen —taxpayers wouldn’t stand for it— and in any case it likely would create a new set of problems.
Instead our legislature acquiesces to the presumed expertise of entrenched bureaucrats, and generally takes initiative only on pet projects chosen for political advantage. While the bureaucracy of government lumbers on, driven by inertia, our elected representatives pick high-profile causes designed for the headlines.
Is there an alternative? Legislators committed to real change should acknowledge the impossibility of properly overseeing a centralized bureaucracy of the size we have created. Our bloated bureaucracy might best be reduced, not by eliminating services, but by returning them to local control, undoing the centralization which has been the drift of government for more than a century.
The two largest and costliest functions of state government — education and welfare — are particularly suited for devolution, since they were entirely local responsibilities for most of our history. Such a change could not take place overnight, but with vision and will it could happen over time, permitting approaches to these services tailored to each specific community, and enabling oversight by the people most directly involved.
The legislature can’t provide the in-depth oversight of the current bureaucracy, but it can still act decisively as a board of directors, setting a new direction for the government. That direction should be smaller, less centralized, and closer to the people.
Joe Markley is a former State Senator from Southington.
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