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Who Polices the Administrative State?



Scholarship on oversight of the bureaucracy typically conceives of legislatures as unitary actors. But most oversight is conducted by individual legislators who contact agencies directly. I acquire the correspondence logs of 16 bureaucratic agencies and re-evaluate the conventional proposition that ideological disagreement drives oversight. I identify the effect of this disagreement by exploiting the transition from George Bush to Barack Obama, which shifted the ideological orientation of agencies through turnover in agency personnel. Contrary to existing research, I find ideological conflict has a negligible effect on oversight, whereas committee roles and narrow district interests are primary drivers. The findings may indicate that absent incentives induced by public auditing, legislator behavior is driven by policy valence concerns rather than ideology. The results further suggest collective action in Congress may pose greater obstacles to bureaucratic oversight than previously thought.


Corresponding author

Kenneth Lowande is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, 5700 Haven Hall, 505 South State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1045 (


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Previous versions were presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, the 2017 Political Economy and Public Law Conference, and the 2017 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Randy Calvert, Andrew Clarke, Anthony Fowler, Justin Fox, Thomas Gray, Jeff Jenkins, David Lewis, Jose Mendez, Jason Oh, Rachel Potter, and Craig Volden provided helpful suggestions. Special thanks to Claire Lowande and Michael Pomirchy for help with the project, as well as Russell Mills and Nikki Kalaf-Hughes for sharing their data. Support for this research was provided by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University. Replication materials are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:



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Who Polices the Administrative State?



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