The end of summer is, in general, a quiet period for the nation’s state legislatures. Today, at the end of August, legislatures in more than half of the states have adjourned until next year unless a special session is called. Even in full-time institutions, schedules have slowed as legislators spend more time in their districts. From the Congress’ summer in-district work period to the long state legislative interim – the time when a part-time legislature is not in session – summer months without the rigors of regular session and committee schedules have long been a part of the American legislative tradition. They date back to a time when a substantial proportion of legislators had agricultural responsibilities, and before modern infrastructure cut down on travel time to state capitals.
A lot has changed since then. Society has become more complex, and governing has grown with it. Typically, the legislature hands off much of the work of implementing policy to the executive branch – the agencies and departments that build infrastructure, regulate industry, look after the vulnerable, and much more. Their responsibility for implementing the legislative branch’s policy never stops. At the same time, the legislature has a special, year-round responsibility to make sure the executive branch faithfully implements the law and to assess the efficacy of the underlying policy. That is oversight. Oversight is a unique right and duty for the legislative branch as a coequal branch of government – one that goes on all year.
A quieter schedule can give legislators and staff time to work on more involved and proactive oversight projects. Those projects, in turn, can set the stage for broader legislative fixes or budgetary tweaks when the full legislature comes back into session. Oversight topics needing a more comprehensive review can include child welfare services, prison operations, and infrastructure priorities. Conducting oversight on topics like these during the interim helps state legislators keep an eye on performance and prepare for an upcoming session when schedules tighten. In the world of oversight, the interim can be just as important as the height of a legislative session.
Every legislative institution has its own way of handling oversight during the interim. The Levin Center’s most recent Oversight Overview video explores the particulars of interim oversight committees working with child welfare in Alabama, Colorado, and Utah. In all three states, several specialized legislative interim oversight committees track a variety of issues, from nuclear energy to administrative rule review.
In West Virginia, where the Legislature’s regular session lasts only from January to March, a robust system of interim committees conducts most of the state’s oversight work during the rest of the year. While certain committees focus on a specific issue area such as education or transportation, a joint Commission on Special Investigations has broad authority and a full investigative staff. All interim committees have a mandate to return a report with their findings to the whole Legislature. The effect of this is that, while the House and Senate may be out of session, the legislature still plays its part as a coequal branch of government all year. While West Virginia’s regular session ended in March, legislators there have continued studying issues like corrections staffing and delays in issuing death certificates.
In Louisiana, standing committees – not just those focused specifically on oversight – have broad authority to conduct most of their oversight operations during the interim. They can establish subcommittees, hold hearings, review proposed administrative rules, conduct investigations, and more. At the same time, the Legislative Audit Advisory Council uses its time in the interim to review reports from the state legislative auditor, as they did in July at a hearing concerning the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs. Aside from just freeing up committee time during the busy session, handling this oversight work during the interim ensures that legislators and staff have the time they need to conduct detailed investigations and prepare thoughtful policy in response. Their system contributes to meaningful, year-round oversight and helps the Legislature hit the ground running during their two-month regular session.
Even though it may seem like a quiet time of year in terms of legislation, good oversight work never stops. Across America, committees keep meeting, auditors keep auditing, and investigators keep investigating. It has been a busy summer at the Levin Center, too. Our State Legislative Oversight Wiki has been revamped with version 2.0, with more information than ever. It is a great tool to learn about oversight operations across the country, and you can even provide updates about how your state’s legislative institutions keep busy with oversight during the summer.