What is Oversight?

Oversight is the power of Congress and the 50 state legislatures to investigate the facts needed to find bipartisan solutions and carry out their legislative functions. The Levin Center believes good government requires good oversight.

What is Legislative Oversight? Fact-Based Inquiries that Advance Democracy

In our democracy, the government and the public are engaged in an ongoing and ever evolving conversation about the state of our country and society. That conversation takes place in town hall meetings and public hearings, on broadcasts and social media, and during and between election campaigns. Through investigation and the establishment of facts, government oversight helps to focus those conversations on how well the government works to address our collective concerns. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government conduct a wide variety of oversight inquiries through committees, commissions, agencies, inspectors general, enforcement programs, and the courts. Their efforts are often inspired and aided by investigative journalists who uncover important problems, by scholars who deepen our understanding of complex issues, and by many different individuals and organizations who share their views about societal challenges and how the government is performing its duties.

Lawmakers’ Unique Power and Responsibility to Conduct Legislative Oversight

Our constitutional system grants Congress and the 50 state legislatures a unique power to conduct far-reaching public investigations into important issues and, when necessary, to compel people to share documents and provide testimony. Lawmakers examine a sweeping array of societal concerns, existing government programs, private sector abuses, disasters, crises, and scandals. Armed with facts gained from legislative oversight, (committees/officials) can establish new or improve existing government programs, better allocate taxpayer dollars, address abuses, and provide needed checks and balances across government.

The Supreme Court has summarized the legislature’s unique duty to conduct legislative oversight in several cases upholding Congress’s right to enforce its subpoenas by quoting Woodrow Wilson’s seminal observation: “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.”

The Levin Center’s work focuses on enabling lawmakers and the public to recognize the unique role that legislative oversight plays in our democracy; the duty legislators have to conduct high-quality, fact-based, bipartisan oversight; and the tools and practices any lawmaker can use (in the words of Senator Carl Levin) “to get to the heart of the matter” and serve our democracy.

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Oversight Matters Podcast

Oversight Matters is a close-up look at important oversight and investigations by both state legislatures and Congress and the people behind them. You will hear personal stories and learn how legislators and their staff uncover waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs as well as the facts behind important public policy reforms. Listen in!        

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Portraits in Oversight

Want to know what is meant by the term “oversight”? To help explain, here are some short portraits of important congressional legislative oversight investigations as well as some key past figures in oversight. Join us for a quick history walk!   

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Oversight Case Law

Although the right of Congress to conduct investigations has been litigated in the courts for more than 200 years, the case law arises from a relatively small number of court decisions. In recent years, however, federal courts have seen an influx of new cases, which we have gathered below.

Additional Resources

Defining Congressional Oversight and Measuring its Effectiveness (PDF, 2018): Learn about Congress’ investigative powers and the types of oversight investigations Congress can conduct, as well as how to analyze the effectiveness of such investigations through various lenses. Access the PDF here: Start Analyzing

Congressional Investigations to Effect Change (Video, 2020): Hear Elise Bean, director of our Washington, D.C., office and a former U.S. Senate investigator with nearly 30 years of experience, explain how fact-based, bipartisan Congressional oversight investigations can achieve policy reforms. Watch the Video.  

State Oversight Academy: Our State Oversight Academy focuses on legislative oversight in state capitols across the country. Visit the Academy.

State Legislative Oversight Wiki: Find information on each state’s oversight committees and processes. Find State Legislative Oversight Resources.