R.I.P. General Interest Reforms

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This weeks readings deal with the aftermath of the political/policy making process. In his book "Reforms at Risk: What Happens After Major Policy Reforms are Enacted," Patashnik (2008) discusses the factors required for general interest reform to take place. He argues that understanding general interest reform is critical to understanding the creation and subsequent dismantling of large-scale policy initiatives so policy analysts can identify problems that may arise in future attempts to pass similar legislation. He uses the Tax Reform Act of 1986 as an example of general interest reform that was passed with great fanfare that over the course of 20 years was dismantled in a piecemeal fashion. In his article Policy Success, Policy Failure, and the Grey Areas in Between, McConnell (2010) notes that while policies are often labeled as failures or success, they often fall somewhere in between. He identifies three realms to policy: processes, programs, and politics. According to McConnell a particular policy can succeed or fail to varying degrees within each of these realms. In The Road to Somewhere: Why Health Reform Happened, Hacker (2010) tackles the complexities of healthcare reform. He makes the argument that policy per se, deserves more attention than it gets from political scientists. He claims that large-scale policy initiatives cover many of the key matters at the core of political science: interest groups, elites, polarization, politics, etc.

In the ebbing and flowing, and polarized political climate we live in, it seems like policy reforms are becoming an increasingly rare breed. The Congress pats themselves on the back for passing continuing resolutions just to keep the government running but still cannot agree on most basic legislation. In The Policy Effects of Political Polarization McCarty (2007) asserts that polarization has weakened the ability of the legislative branch to engage in meaningful policy making. This, he argues, puts the impetus on the judicial and executive branches to create new policy or mitigate disputes over existing policies. Often times it seems like the only one of McConnell's realms that matters is the political realm, unless you consider obstruction a part of the process. With a lack of continuity in government, and increasing polarization, is our government capable of reforming for the general interest? Are we stuck in perpetual motion? Is our government so tied tied to special interests that pragmatic and effective policy is a thing of the past? Chew on that for a while.

3 Comments

I think you hit the nail on the head w/ your point about the political realm seeming to be the only important one & the comparison to the McCarty (2007) reading. I think your same point can be applied to Kingdon’s model, too: he describes three streams, but today it seems like there’s one river (political) and two small tributaries (problem and policy). Kingdon’s model seems (at least tacitly) to assume all three streams are of roughly equal importance; while this may have been the case when his book was originally written, it certainly isn’t today.

“Chew on that for a while.” This is a terribly scary consideration. Realistically, government is probably capable of representing the general public, in some aspects. However, it does seem we are stuck in endless perpetual motion by two polarizing parties, which can only be cured through political “revolutionist” that make choices following against pathways of least resistance; rather, revolutionist who pave the way toward reform, such as outside party affiliates and mass public movements, for instance. What’s more, the current set-up for brief election-based seasons encourages policy makers to focus decisions more heavily on campaigning rather than on “good” governing itself. Yes, it is possible for pragmatic policy to play a role in politics, but it will likely require major changes in the makeup of our political system, which ultimately, time will tell.

I think you made a great point when you brought up the election cycle. Especially in the House of Representatives where terms last two years, congressmen and woman are elected and immediately need to begin raising funds for the next election. Even Senators are called upon to fundraise for their counterparts up for election or re-election, and often are forced to choose between attending a committee meeting or making phone calls. In a political system where money plays such a large role, problems and policies are always going to take a back seat to politics.

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