As part of her study of the nation’s state legislative institutions, on topics such as term limits and oversight of the executive branch, Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson found herself viewing old, archived committee hearings in Michigan from a few decades ago.
The subject was turkey habitats. The place was a cramped committee room in Lansing. Led by two lawmakers — one Democrat, one Republican — the legislative branch was grilling members of the executive branch on implementation of a law to protect the state’s population of wild turkeys.
“They were sharing notes and drilling down with an incredible amount of knowledge, about the law and about turkeys,” she says. “It was a gold standard in legislative oversight.”
That work in Michigan was being done largely outside the public eye, on a subject not likely to win or lose anyone an election. Yet this bipartisan group of lawmakers found it to be an integral part of their responsibility.
“I would hope that legislators see oversight as a big part of their job, at least one-third of it,” says Sarbaugh-Thompson, a professor of political science at Wayne State University. “If we’re spending the money [on a program, agency or regulation], we ought to want to make sure it’s going where it’s supposed to go and that it’s working.”