Week 7 Discussion: Agenda Setting

Chapter Objectives

1. Identify the stages of the policymaking process.

2. Compare patterns of policy change, specifically budgetary incrementalism and punctuated equilibrium.

3. Discuss the various actors involved in making public policy and the different types of policy.

4. Examine the role of bureaucracies in policymaking and the politics involved.

At the beginning of 2018, one of the biggest policy areas under consideration by Congress and the president was immigration policy and specifically how to deal with people who were brought illegally to the United States as children. These individuals are commonly known as “Dreamers,” after legislation that was proposed to address the issue—the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act. In 2014, then president Barack Obama signed an executive order giving legal protection to children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, often called Dreamers. With many calling such an order unconstitutional, President Donald Trump rescinded the order in September 2017, calling on Congress to come up with a permanent legislative solution. In January 2018, after months of negotiating with no solution, congressional Democrats refused to vote on a short-term continuing resolution to continue funding the government without a deal on Dreamers, thereby shutting it down for three days, in order to push the issue of DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In this instance, Democrats utilized their leverage in the Senate to force Republicans to finalize a policy that could be passed and adopted by Congress. Portrayed in the media, the issue has become embroiled in repeated recriminations between Democrats and President Trump, strong language, and tough negotiations. However, all of this obscures different analytical tools that political scientists use to examine the politics of policy areas like immigration.

While DACA and Dreamers deals with a small slice of immigration policy, a basic conundrum is why the United States has not been able to engage in comprehensive immigration reform for over two decades despite several tries in the US Congress. This chapter introduces some of the many ways through which political scientists may attempt to answer such a question. Why has it gotten stuck in the policy formulation and adoption stages? What actors are involved, and what do they want out of immigration policy? How does immigration policy compare with other policy areas in terms of achievement or even difficulty? In attempting to answer these questions, political scientists can begin to understand the policy dynamics of immigration specifically and public policy in general.

Looking at the immigration debates of early 2018, most of the attention has been devoted to the roles of the president and Congress. However, other actors are equally involved in the setting and carrying out of policy—in particular, bureaucracies like the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees agencies like the Border Patrol and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Not only do bureaucracies have a significant amount of input in the making of laws but the way they implement and carry out laws are a continuation of policymaking. As such, to fully understand all aspects of policy studies, we also need to think about bureaucracies and the dynamics involving public administration.

If politics is defined as deciding who gets what, when, and where, then public policy is the vehicle through which that is done. The ultimate goal of politics is the solving of problems through the creation of public policies. Public policy, both its creation and administration, is also the area in which early political scientists believed that a scientific method could provide the most guidance and assistance to policymakers. Through scientific, objective study, political scientists would be able to identify the best approaches to solving social problems and would be able to critically analyze their potential consequences. This information could then be provided to decision makers who would be able to use it to inform their ultimate choices.

This chapter examines public policy, stages of the policymaking process, the people involved, the theories regarding its creation, and even the various types. Because of how the federal government has grown, particularly since the twentieth century, there is practically a policy for most every aspect of modern life. This can certainly complicate matters for political scientists seeking to understand broader patterns about public policy, but the diversity of policy areas also makes it exciting and interesting to study.

Stages of the Policymaking Process

There are five general stages of the public policy process: agenda setting, policy formulation, policy adoption, policy implementation, and policy evaluation. While this process isn’t strictly followed in every situation with every policy, when looking broadly at the political and policy process, we can usually see each of these stages when examining individual public policies. As such, political scientists take this as a helpful framework for evaluating, analyzing, and understanding the formation of public policy.

Agenda Setting

Agenda setting, as stage one in the process, is often the hardest; how do you get a policy problem on the agenda of the most powerful people in the world? One of the classic treatises on agenda setting in public policy is Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies by Kingdon.1 Kingdon argues that three “streams” must combine together in order for a policy problem to make it onto the political agenda: the problem, the existence of a solution, and the political will to deal with it. When these three things coincide, a policy window opens when it is the easiest for political institutions to consider an issue. Oftentimes, it takes willing and able policy entrepreneurs to prepare the groundwork, to work to make sure the three streams coincide.

While it might appear strange at first to think that problems and solutions can be so easily separated by Kingdon, this distinction is actually very important. Some members of Congress may seek changes to particular policy areas absent a crisis or problem simply because of an ideological belief about what the policy should be doing. For example, some Republicans have sought for years to reduce the amount of money being spent on entitlement programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (commonly known as welfare), Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. However, if there is no major problem with any of these areas and the policies are operating relatively well, why would anyone see a need to change them, other than ideologically based reasons, of course? On the other hand, it is easy to see where policy problems may arise suddenly that have no existing solutions; if there is no agreed-upon way of solving a crisis, there may be stopgap policies but no longer term way of fixing the problem in the first place. Therefore, Kingdon’s policy streams theory highlights how circumstances must come together just right in order for policy changes to be successfully made.

Others have examined the role that political actors play in agenda setting. Perhaps one of the most powerful agenda setters is the president. Presidents, by focusing time and energy on a topic, can influence the media and Congress to pick up on problems as well.2 Given all of the things that a president may choose to focus on in a given term, let alone week or month, a president’s choice in focusing the nation’s attention on certain issues sends a strong signal that an issue is important. When making these decisions, presidents are likely to take into consideration the makeup of Congress and the status of the federal budget when deciding what issues to take up.3 Presidents then can use the resources of their office, such as the bully pulpit and even the State of the Union address, to highlight policy issues they wish to focus on. Especially in the run-up to election periods, presidents must be seen to be responding to public concerns and therefore may use this agenda setting power to help their own reelection efforts.4

If any institution, however, would be predicted to be concerned with election and reelection the most, it would be Congress. Walker describes the importance of choosing issues as such: “By deciding what they will decide about, legislators also establish the terms and the most prominent participants in the debate, and ultimately, the distribution of power and influence in the society.”5 Research on agenda setting in Congress has mostly focused on the role of parties and partisanship. For example, Cox tests the role of party in agenda setting in the House of Representatives and finds it to be a significant predictor of support.6 In other words, the majority party so strongly controls the agenda that majority party members rarely dissent in committee or on the floor. While the House lends itself to being a majoritarian institution, the Senate, on the other hand, requires minority participation in setting the agenda. This would suggest that the minority party can more easily set the agenda in the Senate; however, Gailmard and Jenkins find evidence of just the opposite.7 Thus, when setting the agenda in Congress overall, majority parties appear to have the most power to influence what issues will be taken up.

Despite the best efforts of agenda setters throughout politics, the contingent nature of crises and focusing effects are also important in helping legislators and citizens decide what is important or not. For an example of this, we can look no further than 9/11, which brought home the issue of terrorism. Although terrorism is an ancient tactic, and many terrorist acts had been carried out against the United States prior to 9/11, it took the drastic events of that day to focus the attention of the American public and its lawmakers on the problem that was al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and their brand of Islamic terrorism. Policy failures like those of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in treating the health problems of the nation’s veterans similarly brought the attention of politicians and the public to systemic problems at the VA. Outside events and policy failures, then, also have inordinate agenda setting power and the power to override many other issues that might have previously been on the political radar.

Policy Formulation

Once a policy problem is acknowledged to be such, the next step in the process is to formulate a solution. This doesn’t mean that the solution will be perfect; more often than not, it isn’t. But policymakers bargain and negotiate among one another to devise a solution that makes the largest number of people the happiest. The propriety of doing that versus doing what is right is a debate that politicians have all the time and will not be answered with any certainty here. But what we do know is that formulating a policy response is not the same as solving the policy problem.

One way to think about policy formulation is whether elected officials are crafting policy in a top-down manner or whether the policy is being designed from the bottom up. If policy is being driven in a top-down manner, Congress, the president, or both acting together can draw on their staffs and bureaucratic officials to design a broad piece of legislation or executive order that can be considered. In Congress, for example, members are assisted in this not only by their own legislative staff but committee staff and leadership as well. Members may receive outside help from interest groups and other organizations; although this may appear distasteful, these groups can provide valuable experience, knowledge, and insight especially when crafting complex legislation. Similarly, the president can draw on their own advisers along with the bureaucracies of the federal government that have the knowledge and expertise to assist the president.

While top-down policy formulation seems to be the type that we hear the most about, many policies are also driven from those lower down the government hierarchy. However, these bureaucrats are usually closely placed to where policy is actually being carried out, allowing them to understand the ins and outs and details of what policies are actually working and what policies aren’t. New policy, then, can also be driven by these experiences, allowing bureaucrats to build on their experience and knowledge to develop policy that is then presented to the president and Congress to decide on. One clear example of the difference between top-down and bottom-up policy formulation comes to us from NASA, an agency that is discussed later in the chapter. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy directed NASA to send men to the moon by the end of the decade in pursuit of Cold War goals. This top-down formulation left it to NASA to determine the means and the how of carrying out the policy, but it was clearly designed at the executive level. On the other hand, the NASA space shuttle program developed out of an internally designed process with NASA taking the idea for the program to the Nixon White House to decide upon.

Policy Adoption

What is far easier for political scientists and the public to understand is the policy adoption stage. This part of the process deals with decision makers and elected politicians deciding to adopt one policy over another. One of the most prominent means through which this is done is legislation, and because it is easy to quantify and examine votes in Congress, this is one area of fruitful research for political scientists. In fact, the number of analyses of congressional roll call votes grows every year. One of the biggest determinants, if not the biggest, of how members of Congress vote on bills is party; Democrats tend to support Democratic proposals, Republicans tend to support Republican proposals. While this is not an ironclad law, it happens more often than not.

Other factors that influence members of Congress include the salience, or importance, of the issue—in particular, the salience of the issue to their constituents. When the issue is important and visible, members of Congress will often defer to the opinion of their voters; when the issue is not so visible, members of Congress will often vote based on other factors. Other times, members may engage in a process called logrolling; one member will vote for bill A if another member votes for what the first member wants on bill B. This sort of horse trade is common but very difficult to track and therefore analyze.

Policy adoption has become more difficult in Congress as party polarization has grown. The problem is particularly acute in the Senate, which often requires a supermajority to end debate on legislation to clear the way for a vote to be held. For regular pieces of legislation, the Senate requires sixty votes to end debate and move on to vote on a bill; with the margins between parties closer than ever, the majority party often needs the support of several minority party members to move on to votes. As a result, Congress has turned to an option known as budget reconciliation to overcome the sixty-vote Senate. Reconciliation is a procedural move that instructs committees in Congress to create legislation that accomplishes a certain budgetary objective. The resulting piece of legislation is then considered privileged, and a cloture vote, the vote to end debate, is not needed in the Senate, and only a simple majority is required to pass a bill.

Budget reconciliation has been used to pass major pieces of legislation in recent years, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. What is interesting about both of these bills is that when they were adopted by Congress, public approval was upside down: more people disliked the bills than were in favor of them. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, lack of public support led to years of attempts by Republicans to repeal parts of the law if not the whole law itself. This highlights the need for a policy to be seen as legitimate in addition to its being adopted. If a policy lacks a broad base of support or a broad section of people who believe it to be legitimate, it can easily be changed, amended, or repealed in the years following. Thus, in addition to the Congress adopting policy, the public must be willing to adopt it as well.

Legislation is not the only avenue to policy adoption. Presidents can use their executive powers to unilaterally adopt policy initiatives—whether it’s through executive orders, their power as commander in chief, or through administrative powers in the bureaucracy. However, presidents’ abilities to do this are severely constrained by both the Constitution and congressional powers. A good example of this is gun control. President Barack Obama wanted to enact stricter regulations on gun sales and ownership, but without broad-scale legislation from Congress, not much movement can be made on the issue. What the president did was to utilize executive orders to clarify the interpretation of previous laws to make guns harder to buy. While this is making policy, it is making policy on the margins on a small issue within the confines of presidential power.

Policy Implementation

Once policies have been adopted, it is up to the bureaucracy to implement them. More often than not, the legislation that gets passed is vague—bare bones. While it might not seem like it, given that modern legislation is often hundreds of pages long, it will take hundreds more pages of regulations to put that law into practice. Bureaucracies must decide the meaning of nebulous words and phrases and how particular policies will be put into practice. An example of this was the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010. Although the bill itself was 906 pages long, some elected officials have claimed that the regulations issued to support its implementation have surpassed 20,000 pages!

Research on policy implementation has generally occurred along two lines of inquiry: what policy researchers call top-down and bottom-up. The difference in these two theories is a discussion of who should be in charge of deciding how to implement policy: those at the top who have a broad view of the agency, the policy, and what can be done, or those at the bottom who have the most experience and knowledge of how things actually work on the front lines. Top-down scholars have argued that looking at policy implementation from this vantage point has led to 

Policy Evaluation

The final and oft-neglected stage of policymaking is that of evaluation. Evaluation pertains to the assessment of whether the policy is working or not, whether the way a policy was implemented was appropriate or not, and what can be done to improve not only the policy but the way it has been implemented. There are many different types of policy evaluation—from formative evaluation (how well do the inputs of a policy match its outputs) to summative evaluation (is the policy working or is it working better than other alternatives)—with other stages in between.

But why don’t we hear more about policy evaluation? Part of the reason is after a policy is adopted, public attention to the issue naturally fades. We trust that the government can implement policy and that the policy will work, but often we’re not entirely sure. Evaluation research can also be difficult to perform; people on the inside of a bureaucracy may not have the appropriate objectivity to report on a policy’s progress, people on the outside may not have all of the information and may be kept at arm’s length for fear of severe criticism of what the agency had been doing.

Theoretically, the evaluation stage should lead back to agenda setting, to an opportunity for policymakers to adjust the policy they’ve adopted to make it perform better. This rarely happens until a major policy failure occurs, bringing the issue back into the public eye. This brings the cycle back around to Kingdon’s theory of agenda setting: only when a problem is recognized will the policy streams begin to open a window of change.

This explanation has laid out the policymaking process in a rational, step-by-step way. However, the reality is that policymaking is far messier than can often be described, and the stages aren’t often clearly delineated. Agenda setting can flow into formulation, and formulation can be tied with adoption; concerns about implementation will sometimes be addressed as the bill is being written. The policymaking process is an excellent example of how political scientists often must simplify very complicated processes to be able to understand, study, and explain them, but we must also be careful not to lose sight of how byzantine the things we study sometimes are.

Patterns of Policy Change

Theories of policy change are just that—theories. What do real-life patterns of policymaking actually look like? Because it would be really difficult to compare, say, foreign policy to something like agriculture policy in terms of the activities that each undertakes, one way political scientists examine patterns of policy change is through the budgets allocated to each policy area. Budgets are good representations of policy activity because everything the government wants to do requires money and resources to do it. Since money doesn’t grow on trees (not even for the government), the government can’t simply manufacture money to do everything it wants. It must make choices: which areas to fund more or less, whether it’s worth raising taxes to allocate more money to something. Budgets, therefore, become a representation of dedication on the part of the government toward particular policy directions.

Budgetary Incrementalism

The theory of incrementalism dates back to the 1950s and 1960s with work by Lindblom and Wildavsky.10 Incrementalism is the idea that an agency’s or entity’s budget in a given year is based on its budget in the previous year and that the budget will generally go up or go down by only a small amount. One of the assumptions that underlie this theory is the idea that rational lawmakers limit their attention to a policy or agency in a given year by basing its next year’s activities on what they had done previously with few, if any, large jumps or changes in its activities. Berry summarizes the common conceptions that have come along with budgetary incrementalism—among them being the restriction of the number of alternatives, limited assessment of policy consequences, simple decision rules, and the smallness of the ultimate change.11

Although Berry argues that the term incrementalism has lost its meaning because it has been used in so many different ways, we can still use it to examine and explain the budget for NASA, especially after the 1960s. For the most part, the NASA budget has stayed relatively steady except for a post-1986 increase (partially due to the explosion of the shuttle Challenger); in fact, the budget for 2015 was actually $2 billion less than the budget in 1970. In this sense, their budget is an excellent example of incrementalism; for the most part, the budget goes up or down in small percentages. Over time, those small percentages may add up to an overall increase or decrease in funding.

Why would policymakers make policy in this way? Think of all the different policy areas that just 535 members of Congress and one president have to consider every year; there’s just not enough time in the day or the year to thoroughly consider every agency’s budget on a thorough basis every year. Because of this, Congress and the president will usually rubber-stamp a small increase in an agency’s budget with little oversight since there are so many other things for them to do. Larger increases are much harder to get by Congress because that would call for a more comprehensive and time-consuming decision process.

Punctuated Equilibrium

This doesn’t mean, however, that policies and their budgets never change drastically; just looking at the NASA budget disproves this. Incrementalism as a theory cannot explain the sudden changes such as what NASA experienced in the early 1960s or late 1980s. For that, we turn to a different budgetary theory, something called punctuated equilibrium, proposed by Baumgartner and Jones. In looking at the entire history of the NASA budget, we can see that it is marked by periods of great change followed by periods of stability; Baumgartner and Jones argue that this is the normal course of business for most policy areas.12 More important is recognizing why major change doesn’t happen all that often and why, when it does happen, it’s so abrupt. This is where the idea of a policy image or policy monopoly comes into play.

Policy monopolies happen when a dominant actor or set of actors can put into place a shared understanding of what the major policy approach to a problem should be. For example, when NASA was first formed in 1958, the general understanding of what US space policy should be was that it should compete with the Soviet Union in outer space—particularly in the area of human spaceflight. Because this monopoly on what a policy should be was established, it foreclosed other policy directions such as robotic spaceflight or a greater emphasis on scientific discovery and understanding.

When policy monopolies are in place, change is rather incremental, but when the policy monopoly is disrupted, either by crisis, a policy entrepreneur, or some other outside force, the image of the policy becomes in play. It is at this point in time when sudden and abrupt change can occur. Once a new policy monopoly is developed, the policy area again experiences a long period of equilibrium—hence, the term punctuated equilibrium. Baumgartner and Jones’s theory has been used rather successfully in explaining and analyzing different policy areas and obviously builds off of previous work—in particular, incrementalism.

It would be far too simplistic to say that all policy change is a result of these factors. There are any number of other variables that political scientists have identified as affecting budgets. In an article from early 2009, trying to predict what policy changes America would experience as a result of the Obama election, Woon demonstrates that something as basic as elections and polarization affect the types of policies that are capable of being enacted.13 This is an easily understood relationship; if there are more Republicans or Democrats in office, more conservative or liberal policies, respectively, will be able to be passed. Swedlow argues that cultural changes can be precursors for major political change and can be used in conjunction with punctuated equilibrium to specify when conditions might be ripe for large-scale policy change.14 Even changes in the neighboring state, community, or country can lead to policy change in government.15 This is the idea of policy diffusion, when one government enacts policy change, those physically around it might be more inclined to adopt the change as well.

How do both of these ideas—smaller, policy-dependent variables and larger theories of policy change—fit together to explain how and why policy changes? We can again return to our example of NASA as an illustration. The NASA budget is obviously very well-explained by punctuated equilibrium; there are long periods of stability with shorter periods of major change. But what leads to those changes specifically? In the case of NASA, it is often factors like international competition (first from the Soviet Union and later from Russia and China), the gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States (in good economic times, it’s easier to fund discretionary items like NASA), and the overall US budget (it restricts the amount of 

Policy Actors and Types of Policies

Most every political actor you can think of is involved in setting policy somehow. The president and the Congress are only the two most obvious institutions we can think of as well as the bureaucracy. But who else is involved? The media, interest groups, political parties, businesses and corporations, voters, and even academics can be involved at some point or another. It would be a far longer chapter if we were to consider each in turn, so for our purposes here, we will focus on two models of policy actors, the iron triangle and the policy network.

Iron Triangles

Perhaps one of the oldest of such models in political science is the idea of an iron triangle, which brings together congressional committees, interest groups, and bureaucracies. The theory behind the iron triangle is that policy is often truly formulated at the committee level in Congress rather than by Congress as a whole; members of a standing committee often have expertise and experience in dealing with a given policy area and more often than not have some sort of constituent connection with it as well. For example, many members of both the House and Senate committees who deal with agriculture have significant agricultural and farming interests in their districts and states. Therefore, these members become the most important in making policy.

In addition to constituent concerns and their own policy knowledge, congressional committees also heavily rely on the relevant bureaucracy that oversees a policy area to provide further expertise in developing policy. In turn, bureaucracies act in a rational, self-interested manner; in other words, bureaucracies would like to see their budgets and bureaus grow, so they have an incentive to work with the committees who are writing the policy. Finally, interest groups provide yet another policy perspective along with constituent connections. Interest groups can represent policy interests of consumers, advocates, and even manufacturers who have a distinct interest in policy. Interest groups, in attempting to influence policy in a particular direction, seek to influence not only the bureaucracy but congressional committees. This can be done through direct lobbying of either the bureaucracy or the committee or even through campaign support for members of Congress. Thus, the iron triangle represents a policymaking relationship where each partner has an incentive to create policy and work together in some way or another.

The classic example of an iron triangle is in military and defense policy (see Figure 11.2). Obviously, the armed services committees in both the House and the Senate realize the importance of determining defense policies and programs for the country, but in this instance, both the Department of Defense, which carries out military policy, and military contractors have significant interest and influence in what the committees decide. Because members of the committee may not be entirely sure of the Department of Defense’s or the military’s capabilities and needs, they must rely on the Department of Defense to recommend programs and policies to them. Further, military contractors who often provide equipment and personnel have a vested interest in seeing certain programs succeed. Thus, the iron triangle represents the influence that the Department of Defense can have on both congressional committees and the military-industrial complex as well as the influence defense-oriented interest groups can have on the Department of Defense and Congress.

Issue Networks

Just as important for what is included in the iron triangle model is what is not—policy actors like the president or even the public directly are excluded from this type of idea. Further, the iron triangle describes a segmented and closed-off decision-making process, allowing for no other input into the system. While all theories are necessarily simplistic accounts of the phenomena they are trying to describe, some policy analysts have rejected the iron triangle concept for a more open policymaking process with different types of actors involved. As a result, Hugh Heclo introduced the idea of a policy or issue network in the 1970s:

Issue networks are much more fluid coalitions in which sometimes anonymous participants from both inside and outside of government coalesce around a particular issue on an ad hoc basis. Issue networks, unlike iron triangles, are temporary coalitions whose members are motivated by passion and ideals as much as by the chance of some economic gain from involvement in the policy process.16

Where the idea of an iron triangle may be applied to multiple policy areas, the policy network concept would vary across policies. Different policy areas might have different participants; for example, the president may be very interested in the direction of military policy but not so much in agricultural policy. Policy network theory would be able to accommodate a varying and often shifting variety of actors involved in the policymaking process. In his review of domestic policy in the United States, Grossman identifies 790 “notable” policy enactments with the involvement of over 1,300 different actors!17 However, if there are so many different policy areas with so many different people involved, is there any utility in making broad generalizations? In other words, is there any usefulness in the idea of policy networks? Grossman argues that policy networks can be used to create generalized knowledge if scholars are “attentive to the few ways that each issue area differs from the others.”18 In other words, scholars can use policy networks to examine broad policy areas such as agriculture, civil rights, energy, education, labor, and social welfare and generate useful differences between policy areas.

Additionally, since policymaking is not always accomplished at the congressional level, policy networks better describe who is making policy and where. Golden highlights this difference in her study of administrative rulemaking.19 When policy is being implemented, bureaucracies often have to craft a number of rules and regulations to put into effect the vague laws that Congress has passed. These rules have the effect of setting policy—sometimes quite consequentially. Golden notes that this aspect of policymaking is often ignored, so her study aims to identify which model—the iron triangle or policy network—better describes the process of agency rulemaking. She finds that policy networks are far more prevalent in rulemaking with groups moving in and out of the policy process, even within the same agency, communication among groups, and identifiable winners and losers.20

Policy Typologies

Since political scientists seek to explain in as parsimonious a manner as possible, the conclusion that all policy areas are unique and therefore unable to be explained as a whole is a difficult pill to swallow. What’s the middle ground between one general theory that doesn’t explain individual policy shifts and no theory and only individual policy explanations? One middle-of-the-road approach to this is to look at different categories or types of policies. Policy typologies go beyond individual policy areas like homeland security, education, or agriculture; they are categories underneath which multiple, but similar, policy areas might fall.

The benefit of breaking policies up by subject type is that the same political factors might be involved in similar types of policy. For example, partisan differences could help explain changes in multiple social policies, including Social Security and welfare. If Democrats are in charge of the government, we might expect to see actions to strengthen those types of policies. Republicans, on the other hand, might seek to change and modify military policy when they are in charge. All economic policies might be intimately affected by global economic conditions, or sharp upturns or downswings in the stock market. In this way, we can explain changes across more policy areas leading to more parsimonious theories. Smith sums up this argument, saying, “Typologies draw their theoretical strength from the idea that public policies can be systematically classified and that associated with each policy category are distinct and predictable patterns of political behavior.”21

Another way of thinking about different types of policy is by those that are frequently on the political agenda and those that are not. Handberg presents a type of fluctuating policy typology based upon what issues presidents perceive as important to the success of their administration.22 In this view, primary issue items, such as the economy and international relations, receive increased attention compared to secondary or tertiary items. This suggests that policy change or the type of policy change may be different in policy areas that are considered frequently or on top of the president’s agenda. If the president pays little attention to an agenda item lower on the scale, the type of change may be inherently different.

One of the most influential policy typologies in political science was put forward by Lowi in 1972.23 He bases this categorization on the premise that government carries out policy through coercion—through making people or systems behave in a particular way for fear of the consequences if they do not. Therefore, on one axis is the likelihood of coercion (remote or likely), and on the other is the method through which coercion is exercised (through individual behavior or through the environment). The resulting four types of policy are shown in Table 11.1.

Table 11.1 Lowi’s Policy Typology

Table 11.1 Lowi’s Policy Typology



Applicability of Coercion





Likelihood of Coercion


Distributive policy

Constituent policy



Regulatory policy

Redistributive policy

What do these four policy areas consist of? Distributive policies are characterized by low levels of conflict where many different people can benefit from projects. Lowi’s examples include tariffs and subsidies along with land use policies. Regulatory policies consist of policies aimed at eliminating things like unfair competition or fraudulent advertising; these are policies that protect individual citizens. Lowi includes policies like reapportioning or creating new bureaucracies as examples of constituent policy while redistributive policy includes things that redistribute benefits, Social Security, taxes, welfare, etc.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the various typologies policy analysts have proposed, some political scientists are critical of their usefulness. Smith summarizes several of these critiques, including the fact that some policies do not fit neatly into whatever typology is being used, some policies overlap several categories, and some policies may even shift categories over time.24 Smith writes that “the key obstacle in addressing this issue was identified as the ambiguity of policy as a concept, that its status as a particular type was a mental construct and not an observable and measurable empirical quality.”25 In other words, different policy scholars may categorize and classify policy areas differently depending on subjective criteria that can change from person to person. In some ways, this critique is reminiscent of the larger debate within political science between qualitative and quantitative scholars. Those who prefer quantitative methods would be skeptical of such classification schemes precisely because there is no objective empirical standard that causes one policy area to fall into one category or another. On the other hand, qualitative scholars might argue that not everything can be quantified, and this debate is representative of that. Despite these drawbacks, policy typologies continue to be used and are still useful in order to “understand variation across issue areas in the venues where policymaking takes place and the factors responsible for policy change.”26

Public Administration

It’s one thing to talk about the policies themselves; it’s another to discuss the people who actually carry them out. Mention the word bureaucracy to most people, and you’ll probably get a negative reaction. Who doesn’t have a terrible story about waiting in line for hours for a driver’s license or having the post office lose their mail? Who hasn’t heard about the immigration backlogs or difficulties with Social Security checks? For most, the negative reaction to bureaucracy is only natural due to their experiences with it, but when we take a step back and look at all of the activities that bureaucracies undertake, you’ll see a much more nuanced perspective. Most of the 2.6 million Americans who make up the executive branch bureaucracies serve to carry out public policy to the best of their ability, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do.

Growth of the Federal Bureaucracy

For much of the first 100 years of American history, the size of the federal bureaucracy was quite small. Receiving a job as a postman or government official usually came as a result of someone you knew; party supporters were rewarded with patronage jobs. However, the demands on government steadily began to grow, and as they grew, government had to respond with new agencies and organizations to carry out solutions to public problems. The Department of the Interior was created in 1849 to deal with issues surrounding American Indians, land management, and wildlife conservation. During the Civil War, Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture with the responsibility of farm and agricultural policy. These two federal bureaucracies are only two large examples of the growth of the federal bureaucracy as well as the growth of the number of people working in it.

By the late 1800s, the problem of patronage began to rear its ugly head in America. Every time a new president would enter office, he would be besieged by the pleas of job seekers looking for a job in the new administration. Often called the spoils system, presidents and their partisans were able to reward supporters with any number of jobs. Like many other presidents, James A. Garfield was also hounded by job seekers including one named Charles Guiteau, who would eventually assassinate him in 1881. As a result of the Garfield assassination, a series of civil service reforms were initiated with the goal of ending the spoils system and making civil service employment a result of merit and not patronage. As a result of this and other progressive era reforms, the people who make up the majority of the bureaucracy today get and keep their job based on what they know and their ability to do the job; top posts in the executive agencies are handed out by the president and could be a reward for patronage, but this is also the main method through which presidents get and maintain control of the executive branch as well.

The early twentieth century also brought with it a new focus on bureaucracy. Not only did early political scientists see administration as an area in which they could make a significant contribution, but the German sociologist Max Weber wrote extensively on bureaucracies. As an ideal type, “To Weber, a bureaucracy was an organization with specified functional attributes: large size; a graded hierarchy; formal rules; specialized tasks; written files; and employees who are salaried, technically trained, career-appointed, and assigned state duties requiring expert knowledge.”27 Based on this description, we can think of bureaucracies as technical organizations designed to carry out policy and design effective mechanisms through which government can operate.

Bureaucracies do not simply carry out policy, however. Bureaucracies can interpret law to change and modify policy on a regular basis. An example of how this operates in a negative sense is the case of the Clean Air Act of 1970. The Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the ability to set emission standards for “any air pollutant”; up until the early 2000s, the EPA had not interpreted that to include carbon dioxide. In 2003, twelve states sued the EPA, arguing that under the Clean Air Act, carbon dioxide should be regulated. Although the Supreme Court eventually backed the states, the point is that the EPA, in how the law was interpreted, or rather not interpreted, was able to make a significant effect on the overall policy. Bureaucracies do this all the time. Depending on how they interpret legal statutes and findings, the way policy is actually carried out may be significantly different from what Congress and the president originally intended.

Bureaucracies also help to shape policy as it is being formed. Many policies that eventually make it into law or regulations that are put into effect have their start with career bureaucrats. Why might this be the case? Well, compared to members of Congress or even those in the White House, bureaucrats know far more about their area than anyone else. We call this an information asymmetry. Bureaucrats can use this expertise and knowledge to put together packages of policy, propose them to the White House and Congress, and persuade politicians to back them. At the end of the day, ideally, all policy will get the stamp of approval from political, elected leaders, but the bureaucracy can be a significant source of policy information and ideas.

Congressional Control

Despite criticisms, real or imagined, of bureaucratic personalities, another major criticism leveled at bureaucracies is that unelected bureaucrats have too much control over public policy. In a democracy, they argue, shouldn’t elected officials, the representatives of the citizens, direct and make public policy? And given the power noted previously that bureaucrats have to make and influence policy, this could be a fair critique. However, there are a number of elements of control over bureaucratic actions that must also be taken into consideration. We will consider these restraints by branch: legislative, executive, and judicial.

With respect to Congress, they do have the ultimate tool at their disposal to control bureaucracies: the threat of dissolving those agencies to begin with. However, it is very unlikely for government bureaucracies to ever “die”; therefore, the next ultimate sanction is the ability to make laws. Members of Congress can make those laws very explicit and direct, thereby cutting down on the discretion left to bureaucrats. Given the current status of Congress, though, it would prove to be very difficult to pass legislation at all, especially explicit legislation. That said, sometimes the simple threat of legislation can influence bureaucratic behaviors.

Short of passing a law, members of Congress have at their disposal another powerful tool: the budget. Ideally, Congress would construct and pass a budget for the federal government every year; this gives members of Congress the opportunity to review public policy on a regular basis and determine how much money to appropriate for it, as discussed earlier in the chapter. These appropriations controls have the ability to significantly affect the policy process as well as bureaucrats.28 For example, if the EPA is given less money, it would not be able to engage in as many regulatory actions—thereby limiting their impact on policy.

And even if members of Congress don’t change the budget or even increase it, the use of another legislative tool in the appropriations process gives them an opportunity to crack down on bureaucratic activities: the policy rider. Policy riders are portions of legislation that are used to restrict bureaucratic actions, particularly in regulations. For example, policy riders may be used to forbid the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide. MacDonald has found that between 1993 and 2002, over 4,000 policy riders were introduced by the House Committee on Appropriations.29 Policy riders are often attached to appropriations bills because they are generally looked at as “must pass” legislation; unless members of Congress would like the government to shut down, they have to pass the budget—even if there is a so-called poison pill attached to it in the form of a policy rider.

Another form of control is through congressional hearings and investigations. These oversight activities give members of Congress the opportunity to question bureaucrats and learn about the activities of various bureaucracies. Other participants can include interest groups or even critics of the bureaucracy who can give varying opinions on the activities being undertaken. Often, the oversight hearings are called in response to investigations that members have requested. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office provides investigative services to members who request information on particular programs, policies, or actions, and these reports can then serve as a basis for examination in a hearing.

Although hearings are held almost every day on Capitol Hill, there is not much data that shows they make a difference. Weingast and Moran conclude that hearings do not provide much of an effective means at agency control and that Congress can influence agency activities through many other means.30 Certainly, there is a ring of truth to that. If you ever watched a hearing on C-SPAN, or a hearing of a particular topic that has made it on the general news, you’ll notice that members seem to be talking more at themselves than the bureaucrats, instead grandstanding and making personal points rather than trying to influence the policy process. However, what limits the influence of these types of hearings is that no one is usually watching.

A final means of influencing agency action is through changes in party control or makeup in the Congress.31 When party control changes—for example, from Democratic to Republican—agencies are alerted to changing desires on the part of their political masters. In their study of regulatory changes following the 1994 Republican revolution that led to Republicans in charge in both the House and the Senate, Hedge and Johnson find that the EPA actually decreased its regulatory activities temporarily following the change in party control.32

Executive Control

If these controls weren’t enough to keep the bureaucracy in line, the president has in his or her power another set of controls. Nathan argues that the primary means through which a president can control bureaucracies is through the administrative presidency—a set of tactics that can be used outside of Congress to control what the bureaucracy does.33 These tactics include the use of the appointment power, the process of budget review through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), civil service reorganizations, and regulatory control.

By far, the most effective means presidents have to control bureaucratic behavior is through the appointment power.34 Although presidents used to focus solely on the top leadership at agencies, beginning with the Nixon administration, presidents began to take more care with appointments further down the agency totem pole, thereby helping to ensure that the president’s wishes would be carried out.35 Of course, part of Nixon’s motivations in doing this was a fear that the bureaucracy had turned against him, but the practice of also being concerned with lower appointees continues as a result.

The OMB is a powerful but less well-known office within the White House that holds the power to affect many areas of policy. One of the most significant things that it does is that it acts on behalf of the president to oversee the budgets of executive agencies and departments. When bureaucracies are putting together budget proposals for the next fiscal year, before they are transmitted to Congress, the OMB must approve the budget requests. This allows the president, through the OMB, to place his own stamp on a bureaucracy’s activities before Congress even gets the opportunity. Logsdon in After Apollo? provides an excellent case study of how influential the OMB can be.36 He studies in detail the creation of the NASA space shuttle program following the moon landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Time and again, the major players in shaping the policy were often analysts within the OMB who were looking out for President Nixon’s budget priorities. While conflicts would eventually make it to the president for him to decide, Nixon often came down on the side of the OMB.

The OMB also provides clearance for any regulation government bureaucracies may be proposing. Before an agency like the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Communications Commission publishes or proposes a rule implementing a law, the OMB, again acting on behalf of the president, must approve it. This gives the White House an opportunity to check the actions of bureaucracies to ensure they are in line with the president’s objectives. Presidents can also request that agencies make regulations in certain areas that the president desires. President Obama requested that the EPA issue more stringent regulations with regard to regulating carbon dioxide, for example. Presidential requests, then, are direct policy actions that the bureaucracy must then carry out.

Finally, while a president cannot necessarily hire and fire civil service bureaucrats at will, he or she can reorganize the federal bureaucracy within certain parameters. Reductions in force (RIFs) can also be utilized to practically eliminate some areas of the bureaucracy. When presidents issue a RIF, bureaucrats can be forced out of agencies, thereby reducing capabilities. President Reagan utilized this tactic to reduce the civil service at the EPA in the 1980s, which was keeping with his policy of reduced regulations.37 Again, this allows presidents to shape bureaucracies to their liking.

Judicial Control

In addition to the controls placed on the bureaucracy by the president and Congress, the judiciary also has a hand in ensuring that bureaucracies are on their best behavior. Under the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act, there are certain rules and procedures that bureaucracies must follow when they enact rules and regulations. They must first publish a proposed rule, allow time for comment, and then publish the final rule all in advance of when the rule goes into effect. Administrative law courts and judges can review the legality and procedures of bureaucracies to ensure that due process has been followed. Laws also give citizens the opportunity to appeal certain bureaucratic decisions such as Social Security disability decisions and decisions on benefits through the VA. Overall, the role of the court is to ensure that agencies follow all appropriate rules, interpret law correctly, and afford every citizen due process procedures.

Bureaucratic Politics

If you combine the knowledge and specialized expertise that bureaucrats have, along with their desire to create policies in a way they would prefer and the political controls offered through the Congress and the president, you create a world of politics central to the operations of bureaucracies. Bureaucrats and politicians will more often than not work in concert to not only create policy but shape how it is carried out. It is easy to recognize this in the actions of people like the secretary of state or the secretary of defense. If the country is faced with a military or international relations crisis, the secretary of defense will most likely try to convince the president to respond in a certain way, as will the secretary of state. Once a president makes their decision through the give-and-take of advice and consideration, those bureaucrats will have to act to carry out the decision. This back-and-forth doesn’t only occur at the top levels of government; it happens all the way down the chain of command.

The term  bureaucratic politics  encompasses the actions of bureaucrats being involved in politics and policy. ‘t Hart and Rosenthal call the study of bureaucratic politics “one of the last remaining taboos in government. Everybody knows it occurs, but insiders are reluctant to speak about it frankly.”38 As mentioned before, this is often criticized as many believe the role of the bureaucracy is to competently carry out policy, not make it. But bureaucratic politics heavily influences the eventual policies that are decided upon. The most well-known example of how this has worked in practice is Allison’s account of the Cuban missile crisis, Essence of Decision.39 In it, Allison, along with Zelikow, argue that the best way to understand the actions of the Kennedy administration during the crisis was through the lens of bureaucratic politics, or what they call governmental politics: “What happens is understood as a resultant of bargaining games among players in the national government.”40 In other words, different actors, including bureaucrats, are engaged in bargaining and negotiations, and policy results from this give-and-take. The positions that bureaucrats take on issues are a result of the interests of their agency; for instance, when the Department of Defense is consulted on a policy problem, they will advocate the solution that their agency wants, not what might be in the best interest of the president or the United States. In the same vein, the Department of State will advocate the response that they want. It is up to the major players, including most of all the president and the Congress, to negotiate across agencies to come to a policy decision.

In another study of decision making during the Vietnam War, Preston and ‘t Hart argue that the way in which presidents surround themselves with advisers and the organization of the advisers greatly impacts the decisions that are made.41 If presidents cut some parts of the government out, the positions of those agencies might not be included in the decision-making process. In this sense, policymaking is a result of horizontal processes—negotiations among players at similar levels of government—not a hierarchical process.42 The problem with studying bureaucratic politics isn’t just that some people do not believe in its legitimacy but that it is a difficult process to understand, see, and therefore analyze. As ‘t Hart and Rosenthal mentioned, no one really wants to talk about it, and no records are usually kept. As such, if we can’t understand the exact behaviors of all the players involved, it is hard to understand the rationales and explanations that are taking place.

In any case, bureaucratic politics—the negotiating, talking, backroom deal making—does indeed happen throughout Washington. Bureaucrats have information and expertise as well as a desire to do good for their agency. Politicians want to be reelected and must listen not only to their constituents but to the information and advice given from not only bureaucrats but interest groups, political action committees, and other interested parties. Presidents must listen not only to bureaucrats but Congress and the nation of constituents. If we don’t look deeper at politics, we might not see the bureaucratic politics happening, but looked at with a microscope, it is certainly there.

Chapter Summary

· There are five stages of the policymaking process: agenda setting, policy formulation, policy adoption, policy implementation, and policy evaluation.

· Typically, policy, as expressed by a budget, changes incrementally over time. However, there are periods in which change can come swiftly, and the policy is significantly overhauled.

· Most everyone is involved with the policy process at some point, but two different models of policy actors highlight the most important: iron triangles and policy networks, which can shift depending on the policy. Policy typologies can be helpful in analyzing public policy and the actors that are involved.

· Bureaucracies are critical actors in policymaking, and the federal bureaucracy has grown extensively since the twentieth century. Despite criticisms of too much bureaucratic involvement, all three branches of government have at their disposal tools through which they can control the actions taken by bureaucracies.

For Further Reading

Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew. “The Politics of Presidential Agendas.” Political Research Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2005): 257–268.

Goodsell, Charles T. The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic. 4th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004.

Lowi, Theodore J. “Four Systems of Policy, Politics, and Choices.” Public Administration Review 32, no. 4 (1972): 298–310.

American Evaluation Association: https://www.eval.org

CDC’s Policy Analytical Framework: https://www.cdc.gov/policy/analysis/process/analysis.html


1. John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd ed. (New York: Pearson, 2002).

2. Jeffrey S. Peake, “Presidential Agenda Setting in Foreign Policy,” Political Research Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2001): 69–86.

3. Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, “The Politics of Presidential Agendas,” Political Research Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2005): 257–268.

4. Jeff Yates and Andrew Whitford, “Institutional Foundations of the President’s Issue Agenda,” Political Research Quarterly 58, no. 4 (2005): 577–585.

5. Jack L. Walker, “Setting the Agenda in the US Senate: A Theory of Problem Selection,” British Journal of Political Science 7, no. 4 (1977): 423.

6. Gary W. Cox, “Agenda Setting in the US House: A Majority Party Monopoly,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 23, no. 2 (2001): 185–210.

7. Sean Gailmard and Jeffrey A. Jenkins, “Negative Agenda Control in the Senate and the House: Fingerprints of Majority Party Power,” The Journal of Politics 69, no. 3 (2007): 689–700.

8. Paul A. Sabatier, “Top-Down and Bottom-Up Approaches to Implementation Research: A Critical Analysis and Suggested Synthesis,” Journal of Public Policy 6, no. 1 (1986): 21–48.

9. Ibid.

10. Robert A. Dahl and Charles Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (New York: Harper and Row, 1953); Charles Lindblom, “The Science of Muddling Through,” Public Administration Review 19 (1959): 79–88; Aaron Wildavsky, The Politics of the budgetary Process (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964); Otto A. Davis, M. A. H. Dempster, and Aaron Wildavsky, “A Theory of the Budgetary Process,” American Political Science Review 60 (1966): 529–547.

11. William D. Berry, “The Confusing Case of Budgetary Incrementalism: Too Many Meanings for a Single Concept,” The Journal of Politics 52, no. 1 (1990): 167–196.

12. Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

13. Jonathan Woon, “Change We Can Believe In? Using Political Science to Predict Policy Change in the Obama Presidency,” PS: Political Science and Politics 42, no. 2 (2009): 329–333.

14. Brendon Swedlow, “Cultural Surprises as Sources of Sudden, Big Policy Change,” PS: Political Science and Politics 44, no. 4 (2011): 736–739.

15. Sarah M. Brooks, “Interdependent and Domestic Foundations of Policy Change: The Diffusion of Pension Privatization around the World,” International Studies Quarterly 49, no. 2 (2005): 273–294.

16. E. Sam Overman and Don F. Simanton, “Iron Triangles and Issue Networks of Information Policy,” Public Administration Review 46 (Nov. 1986): 584.

17. Matt Grossman, “The Variable Politics of the Policy Process: Issue-Area Differences and Comparative Networks,” The Journal of Politics 75, no. 1 (2012): 65–79.

18. Ibid., 65.

19. Marissa Martino Golden, “Interest Groups in the Rule-Making Process: Who Participates? Whose Votes Get Heard?” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART 8, no. 2 (1998): 245–270.

20. Ibid., 265.

21. Kevin B. Smith, “Typologies, Taxonomies, and the Benefits of Policy Classification,” Policy Studies Journal 30, no. 3 (2002): 379–395.

22. Roger Handberg, “The Fluidity of Presidential Policy Choice: The Space Station, the Russian Card, and US Foreign Policy,” Technology in Society 20 (1998): 421–439.

23. Theodore J. Lowi, “Four Systems of Policy, Politics, and Choices,” Public Administration Review 32, no. 4 (1972): 298–310.

24. Smith, “Typologies, Taxonomies.”

25. Ibid., 380.

26. Grossman, “The Variable Politics,” 66.

27. Charles T. Goodsell, The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic, 4th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004), 6.

28. Lawrence C. Dodd and Richard L. Schott, Congress and the Administrative State (New York: Macmillan, 1979).

29. Jason A. MacDonald, “Limitation Riders and Congressional Influence over Bureaucratic Policy Decisions,” American Political Science Review 104, no. 4 (2010): 766–782.

30. Barry R. Weingast and Mark J. Moran, “Bureaucratic Discretion or Congressional Control? Regulatory Policymaking by the Federal Trade Commission,” The Journal of Political Economy 91, no. 5 (1983): 765–800.

31. Ibid.; Terry M. Moe, “Control and Feedback in Economic Regulation: The Case of the NLRB,” American Political Science Review 79, no. 4 (1985): 1095–1116; B. Dan Wood and Richard W. Waterman, “The Dynamics of Political Control of the Bureaucracy,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 3 (1991): 801–828; David Hedge and Renee J. Johnson, “The Plot That Failed: The Republican Revolution and Congressional Control of the Bureaucracy,” J-PART 12, no. 3 (2002): 333–351.

32. Hedge and Johnson, “The Plot That Failed.”

33. Richard P. Nathan, The Administrative Presidency (London: Macmillan, 1983).

34. Wood and Waterman, “The Dynamics of Political Control”; Moe, “Control and Feedback”; Marissa Martino Golden, What Motivates Bureaucrats? Politics and Administration during the Reagan Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

35. Nathan, The Administrative Presidency.

36. John Logsdon, After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

37. Golden, What Motivates Bureaucrats?

38. Paul ‘t Hart and Uriel Rosenthal, “Reappraising Bureaucratic Politics,” Mershon International Studies Review 42, no. 2 (1998): 233.

39. Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1999).

40. Ibid., 6 (emphasis in the original).

41. Thomas Preston and Paul ‘t Hart, “Understanding and Evaluating Bureaucratic Politics: The Nexus between Political Leaders and Advisory Systems,” Political Psychology 20, no. 1 (1999): 49–98.

42. Thomas H. Hammond, “Agenda Control, Organizational Structure, and Bureaucratic Politics,” American Journal of Political Science 30, no. 2 (1986): 379–420.