You can’t limit government if you don’t exercise oversight

The big Illinois news for Republicans this week is the actions of two men who have been elected to the General Assembly as Republicans and have held important Party posts. We weighed in on this topic, and in the piece included this line:

It’s easy to find quotes in the press from both men showing how neither really understood the job of leadership.

One of the roles of legislative leadership is to provide serious oversight of government spending.

The 11th hour spring session announcements that Illinois General Assembly Republicans had decided to support only a no-tax-increase budget was good news. Unfortunately it lacked credibility due to the decades of Republican participation in the fiscal mess that is Illinois state government today. This series is outlining ways that lack of credibility can be overcome.

Here we deal with a simple concept that many rank and file Republicans probably don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about because they assume their elected leadership is doing its job.

Few Illinoisans realize that there is absolutely no real oversight of any state spending. Those billions of tax dollars collected every year are sent to Springfield and then distributed without any serious accounting of whether those dollars are spent wisely or are accomplishing the goals of those writing the checks.

In Washington, D.C. we know there are “oversight” committees, and those committees are staffed and can at times be aggressive in their duties. Of course we all know that we’re talking about trillions of dollars in the federal case – so any attempt at oversight there will fall short. But at least in Washington some sense of a check and balance exists. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are jealous of their powers.

And as with any oversight – if the people looking at the books and weighing the merits of the programs are supporters of higher spending and bigger government, what constitutes oversight might look to the rest of us like rubber stamping.

In Springfield, the General Assembly is a part time body and the staff is small. The legislative branch of government long ago took the fork in the road that left the job of any real oversight to the executive branch agencies.

So what we have is the executive branch policing itself. An agency like the Department of Human Services gets its billions and then typically reports back to the General Assembly that everything is fine except that – yep – they need more money for next year.

No better example exists than the state dollars going to fund education – both K-12 and higher ed. Legislators defer completely to the men and women who work within the public education system on how much is needed or how well the existing funds are being spent.

Make no mistake – the state university system is just as bad as the K-12 system when it comes to the idea of “efficiency.” Both could adopt “hogzilla” as their mascot.

One of the most pathetic spectacles that takes place every spring is when legislators whose districts contain state universities become lobbyists for those enormously obese institutions.

The legislators who are bought and paid for by the K-12 teacher unions are no better, though of late it seems even some Democrats are starting to doubt that money is the answer to every school district’s problem.

Legislative committee hearings in Springfield are perfunctory. Agency department heads showing up are typically just punching a clock. They’re going to get their money, though they might have to answer a few questions first. The exchanges fool no one. Everyone knows the rubber stamp is already inked up.

The only question facing participants involve competing interest groups that “do business” with the state. Some might not get what they want if another group gets what’s theirs.

The no-oversight culture of Springfield has long been an honored bi-partisan deal. You don’t look at my spending and I won’t look at yours.

Rarely is a voice heard in a Springfield committee hearing saying money shouldn’t be spent. Taxpayers who foot the bill are too busy working and rarely can engage in armchair oversight let alone travel to Springfield. Taxpayers think they’ve hired a representative and senator to do that.

Without legislators providing independent oversight, there is no adult supervision over the spending of tax dollars.

If the words we’re hearing from Republicans in Springfield about “fiscal responsibility” are to be believed, in short order we need to hear their plan for instituting real oversight. Without it, they won’t be able to effectively argue that enough is enough.

Without an honest look at existing expenditures, our leaders will have a much more difficult job of making the case for where cuts should be made and where limits should be set.