Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Political Science

First Advisor

Boehmke, Frederick J.

First Committee Member

Dion, Douglas

Second Committee Member

Shipan, Charles R.

Third Committee Member

Jensen, Christian B.

Fourth Committee Member

Riezman, Raymond G.


This dissertation seeks to explain variation in legislative strategies to control policymaking across institutional contexts. Of these many strategies, I focus particularly on the use of statutory language meant to direct agency action and on the use of oversight hearings. I argue that while low levels of oversight activity need not imply that a legislature is helplessly abdicating policymaking responsibility to unelected agencies, this may be the case in some circumstances. With the goal of establishing when the lack of oversight may mean such normatively problematic abdication, I develop a signaling model of delegation and oversight which proposes that oversight depends on institutional features (such as legislative capacity, the existence of legislative term limits and a legislative veto), political features (such as policy conflict within the government and within the legislature and the policy preferences and activism of important judicial actors), and the legislature's initial delegation of policymaking discretion to an agency. Critically, the pursuit of either strategy depends on alternative strategies available as well as on the likely actions of other institutions with the power to affect policy outcomes. The dissertation extends our theoretical understanding of legislative-executive relations and provides one of the first large-scale empirical analyses of legislative policymaking.

In the first empirical chapter of this dissertation, I assess the predictions of the theory concerning congressional oversight activity from 1947-2006. I find that both the extent to which a congressional committee's ideology diverges from an agency's and the policy-specific expertise of said committee affect the number of oversight hearing days the committee holds, but only when policy disagreements are sufficiently conflictual. This last condition suggests, contrary to previous research, that the extent to which oversight should be necessary, to either legislative policymaking or democratic legitimacy, varies across preference arrangements. In the next empirical chapter, I switch my focus from the analysis of a single legislature over time to a cross-sectional study of the extent to which U.S. state legislatures delegate authority to bureaucratic agencies. Here, I find that the amount of discretion that a legislature delegates to an agency charged with implementing Medicaid policy is nonlinearly related to the extent to which state courts are likely to affect policy outcomes, as captured by a new measure of judicial activism. These analyses confirm that legislatures consider alternative methods of control as well as the likely actions of external institutions when crafting their policymaking strategies.


Congress, delegation, interbranch relations, oversight, principal-agent theory, state legislatures


xii, 172 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 162-172).


Copyright 2011 Robert J. McGrath