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McCubbins and Schwartz: Congressional oversight overlooked

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

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.




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.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


McCubbins, Mathew D. (author)Schwartz, Thomas (author)Comparative PoliticsPrincipal-AgentInformationBureaucracyCongress (U.S.)

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