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McCubbins and Schwartz: Congressional oversight overlooked

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American Politics


McCubbins and Schwartz. 1984. Congressional oversight overlooked: Police patrols versus fire alarms. American Journal of Political Science 28: 16-79.


Congress prefers to allow third parties to oversee the executive branch performance by means of established rules and procedures (fire alarms), rather than examining a sample of agencies at its own initiative (police patrol). It is not Congress' neglect of oversight, but just the rational preference for one form over the other.


  • Police patrol oversight = centralized, active, and direct: At its own initiative, Congress chooses a sample of executive agencies with the aim of detecting and remedying violations of legislative goals, and by its surveillance, discouraging such violations.
  • Fire alarms oversight = less centralized, less active and direct: Congress establishes rules, procedures and informal practices to enable citizens and organized interest groups to examine administrative decisions to charge agencies with violating congressional goals and to seek remedies from agencies, courts and Congress itself.


  • Congress can choose either form of oversight or form a combination, (with implicit tradeoffs among them) when writing legislation and when evaluating agency's performance. Technical assumption.
  • Congressmen seek to take as much credit as possible in helping their constituencies. Motivational assumption.
  • Executive agencies act as agents of Congress, specially its subcommittees on which they depend for authorizations and appropriations. Institutional assumption.


  • Congressmen favor oversight, so they will prefer FA to PP. (PP is more time spending; PP may imply a small sample of agencies, therefore missing potential violations; cost of oversight is borne by third parties).
  • By adopting a somewhat effective oversight policy, Congress is not neglecting its responsibility.
  • Congress will adopt an extensive policy of FA while largely neglecting PP.

Place in the literature:

Authors argue against: 1) Those who have mentioned that Congress neglects its oversight responsibility by arguing that public policy is complex, and therefore authority has to be delegated over bureaucracy, whose actions it is unable effectively to oversee (Lowi, 1969). 2) Those who say that Congress wishes to keep bureaucracies non-political in the name of public interest, and 3) Those who claim that Congress is too decentralized to make oversight bodies powerful enough to do their job correctly.


FA is more effective because legislative goals are stated in an ambiguous way that obstruct violation detections, unless third parties complaint. FA are focused in the sense that identifies the specific offended agency or citizen, a matter that PP would not do.