Politics and Policymaking

It is impossible to separate policymaking from politics. Many groups with different interests and their own agendas are involved in all stages of policymaking. A good example is the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, the reform law contains provisions for cuts in direct federal aid and new work requirements that troubled many Democrats and organizations representing the poor. President Bill Clinton signed the bill after some hesitation and then indicated that he would seek changes in the law during the next session of Congress.

Fragmented policies

A strong case can be made that the very nature of the U.S. system of government encourages fragmented policies. The separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism mean there is no one institution responsible for making policy. To illustrate, the federal government has a perspective on immigration reform much different from that of the governors of states mandated to provide services to a growing number of illegal immigrants. Interest groups with opposing points of view on an issue also come into the mix.

The lack of coordination among agencies responsible for implementing policy also contributes to fragmentation. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard, as well as the local and state police, have responsibilities in preventing illegal drugs from entering the country. Not only do their jurisdictions overlap, but each is determined to protect its turf. Anyone who has seen how local law enforcement officers and the "feds" are portrayed on television police shows has an inkling of the problem. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the lack of coordination and information sharing among intelligence and other federal agencies was a factor in the success of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Politics in Congress

The formulations and adoption of public policy can be either hampered or advanced by the way things are done in Congress. Bills for the construction of major public works that benefit a particular district or state, such as bridges, dams, and highways or the establishment of military bases, are known as pork-barrel legislation. While such programs do create jobs, they may run counter to a broader policy direction, such as the need to cut the federal budget deficit.

Often, representatives from different states and even different parties may agree to support each other's legislative agendas. A New York congressman may support a water project in Arizona in return for his Arizona colleague's vote on a mass transit appropriation for the Northeast. This practice is known as logrolling, and it is a way of building coalitions that may back a new policy direction.

Iron triangles and issue networks

Elected officials are not the only people involved in the politics of policy. An issue network is a newer concept. It involves members of Congress, committee staff, administrative and regulatory agency directors and staff, lobbyists, executive department officials, and scholars from both the academic world and so-called "think tanks" (like the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the liberal Brookings Institution, and the libertarian Cato Institute) who work on a specific policy. An issue network is much more complex than an iron triangle, and the participants are often in conflict in spite of their common area of interest.

The role of scholars in developing a policy should not be underestimated. It is not uncommon for a congressional committee holding hearings on a welfare bill to hear testimony from economists, sociologists, and political scientists who have important insights on a problem based on years of study.