What Subway Hearings? What Hearings? Legislature Does Little Oversight Compared to NYC Council

September 18, 2017

The seemingly never ending “Summer of Hell” subway meltdown is a reminder to New York City residents that the state, which owns the MTA, does a have a big impact on everyday life.  The MTA is the state’s largest public authority and provides more direct service to New Yorkers than any other state agency or authority. While the subway meltdown has led to scorching headlines and editorials, it’s led to zero oversight hearings. Unfortunately, this is typical of Albany. Part of the dysfunction in state government is that the state legislature does very few oversight hearings. This type of hearing is an important tool for holding agencies and authorities accountable. Hearings allow the legislature to put a spotlight on a state agency’s activities, and to illuminate what went wrong when the state government is failing to fix a major problem.

New York has plenty of problems, so you would think the legislature would do plenty of oversight hearings. It doesn’t. The State Assembly, which is controlled by representatives from New York City, has done zero subway oversight hearings in the past two years, and has none planned. Reinvent Albany tallied up oversight hearing held during the 2016 legislative session and found that the NYC Council held 111 compared to the State Assembly’s 29, and the State Senate’s 15. (The  state legislature’s total would have been even lower if not for four joint senate-assembly oversight hearings spurred by the water contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls.)

In 2016 the NYC City Council held about four times as many oversight hearings as the State Assembly and seven times as many oversight hearings as the State Senate.

An oversight hearing is any hearing that, either in whole or in part, reviews the administration of laws and agency operations, including the impact and/or implementation of programs and policies. When a hearing solely reviews legislation or an appointment, it is not an oversight hearing. In our tally, we did not define budget hearings as oversight hearings.

Unlike lawmaking which takes place during scheduled legislative sessions, oversight activities are not scheduled and are typically not considered as urgent as other legislative activities, thus largely escaping public scrutiny. However, legislative oversight is a fundamental check and balance on government operations, ensuring that government programs and policies remain responsive to constituent needs, changing economic constraints, and innovation in governance. Hearings are powerful tools that bolster public discussion and ensure public accountability of government programs and activities. Further, public hearings can provide opportunities for legislators and other public officials to learn about best practices and alternative approaches to government operations. Governments should always be innovating and looking for new ways to tackle problems and improve quality of life, and indeed New York State is not afraid of policy innovation and exploration. But, in the absence of proper oversight, there is no way to know if programs and policies are succeeding or operating in the public’s best interest more broadly.

Democracy relies on legislative oversight. Oversight hearings ensure accountability, reveal program and policy shortcomings, and identify potential solutions. By not holding regular oversight hearings, New York State legislators are failing to uphold their constitutional obligations. According to Senate and Assembly rules, chairs of standing committees of the Senate have the authority to call public hearings, while Assembly committee chairs may call an oversight hearing as long as the majority of committee hearings agree to the hearing.