Coase-Sandor Working Paper Series in Law and Economics

Who Conducts Oversight? Bill-Writers, Lifers, and Nail-Biters

Brian D. Feinstein


The landmark Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 charges Congress, through its standing committees, to “exercise continuous watchfulness” over the executive branch. Yet committees differ markedly in their performance of this responsibility; the modal House committee convenes no oversight hearings in the typical year, while other committees hold many dozens of hearings. This Article compares the characteristics of committee chairs that pursue oversight vigorously with those that do not. Surprisingly, I find that chairs’ previous prosecutorial or other legal experience has no discernable connection with oversight activity. Instead, committees that engage in frequent oversight tend to be chaired by productive lawmakers (“bill-writers”), members with long tenures in office (“lifers”), and members facing competitive elections (“nailbiters”). Should congressional leaders desire to increase their branch’s role in governance after the passage of laws, they ought to encourage members with these characteristics to chair committees.