December 08, 2009

What's on the table

The theme at Goat Rope this week is public policy and how it gets made, a subject that I find to be often interesting and sometimes scary. In doing this, I'm drawing on some of the insights of John Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy, a 1984 book that holds up pretty well.

The first step in getting any policy enacted into law is to get it on the agenda, which is basically what's on the political table for consideration at any given point in time. The agenda consists of all the things people in and around government pay attention to.

Agenda setting is important both for what it brings to the table and for what it keeps off it. For example in the Bush years, addressing climate change (and much else) just wasn't on it.

So who gets to do it? It probably won't be a surprise for readers to find that Kingdon's research found that presidents (with their staff and political appointments) generally get first whack at it, especially when they're still in the honeymoon phase or are acting in accord with a perceived public mood or addressing widely recognized problem. And, although his research was aimed at the federal level, it's safe to say that governors play a similar role at the state level.

Many other players--such as civil servants, congressional staffers, interest groups, researchers, academics, etc.--try with more or less success to influence the agenda, but these players often take the indirect route.

Congress (and state legislatures, by extension) are also major players in agenda setting. The power of Congress in agenda setting may wax while that of the president wanes. For example after the 1994 Republican congressional landslide, the new majority took the initiative in trying to set the agenda with its Contract With (On?) America.

Obviously, in all this elections matter. Using the Bush years as another example, the balance began to tilt away from the president after the 2006 elections, in which Democrats gained the majority. With the 2008 elections, much of the agenda setting lately has come from the Obama administration, although that may change in the future.

Major events--Pearl Harbor and 9/11, for example--can also alter the public agenda as well, as can grassroots pressure from below. One other factor that can do so is whether an issue as seen as a problem or a condition.

More about this to come.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Groups are urging Congress to act to extend unemployment and COBRA benefits about to expire.

SICK DAYS. Calling in is not an option for many low wage workers.

ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. The EPA is prepared to deal with climate change if Congress isn't.




Hollowdweller said...

I always say that the combination of air travel, females working, and the lack of sick leave would probably mean something like the 1918 influenza outbreak MORE deadly NOW despite the improved medicine.

The fact that the working class lives pretty hand to mouth now also means they would be less likely to take an upaid sick day also.

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