The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 12: Public Policy

Read or download the textbook here.


by Barry D. Friedman

Corker proposes federal budget reform in February, 2018. From the Office of Senator Bob Corker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.The significant decisions that government policymakers—most prominently legislators but also executives and judges—make are described as public policies. While most of the contents of this textbook focuses on the U. S. government’s institutions and their political intrigue, this chapter examines the outputs of these institutions and political activities. Public policy comes about in a plethora of ways, but political scientists have developed “models” to describe the most common processes that give birth to policies. The policy-process model describes how a problem is identified, how it comes to the attention of policymakers, and how a policy to address the problem is formulated and legitimated. Other models state that policies come about through incremental change, rational analysis, pursuit of individuals’ selfish interests, interest groups’ competition with each other, cooperative efforts of those who specialize in a policy area, or direction by the elite class. The government possesses a range of instruments to accomplish policy execution – such as imprisonment, taxation, subsidies, and propaganda. The persistent demand from the public for services and benefits has outpaced the national government’s ability to raise tax revenue to pay for their cost, resulting in annual budget deficits. These deficits have accumulated to a staggering total of $14 trillion, which threatens to incapacitate the governmental system of the United States.

An example of how federal funds are distributed. Gene Simmons, Founder, National Debt Awareness Campaign (NDAC) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Chapter 12: Public Policy

I. What is Public Policy?
A. What government does and how it does it
II. Ingredients of Public Policy
A. U.S. Constitution
B. Statutes
C. Budgetary laws
D. Executive Orders
E. Rules and regulations of agencies
F. Opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court
III. Area of Policy
1. Agriculture
2. Consumer protection
3. Crime supression
4. Education
5. Environmental protection
6. Foreign affairs
7. Housing
8. Military operations
9. Public health
10. Taxation
IV. The Policy ProcessV
A. Problem Identification
1. When someone or some group identifies a problem that some segment of the population is experiencing
2.Letters from constituents
3. News Media
B. Agenda-setting
1. Problem becomes an entry on the agenda of public policy
2. When the demands for action become numerous and adamant that policymakers conclude that they can no longer ignore the demands
3. Public policymakers are generally reluctant to acknowledge that they have to take action on some problem, because remedies cost money and money is scarce
C. Formulation of Proposals
1. Creation of specific proposals to address the problems on the agenda
2. Where do proposals come from:
a. Employees of the Executive Branch
b. Congressional Staff Members
c. Interest Groups
d. Think Tanks
D. Legitimation of proposal
1. When Congress enacts a bill
a. The public understands Congress to be the legitimate representative of the public
2. When the president signs an act of Congress into law
3. Supreme Court decision, upholding a law as constitutional
E. Implementation
1. Once a policy has been enacted and signed into law, the executive branch is responsible for administering the law
F. Evaluation
1. The execution and results of a policy will be evaluated to determine whether the policy is beneficial and the execution is effective
a. Hopefully at regular individuals
b. If not beneficial or executed effectively, the policy should be reconsidered and either redesigned or abandoned
V. Models of Public Policy: Incrementalism
A. Charles Lindblom, 1959
B. Policy is the previous policy but with small incremental changes
1. Saves time
2. Saves the arduous effort to innovate new policy technologies
3. Allows the full use of existing organization, equipment, and other infrastructure, without having to acquire new kinds of resources
4. The government’s—particularly the bureaucracy’s—familiarity with the ongoing policy approach allows for the development of experiencethat contributes to efficiency and gradual refinement of implementation methods
VI. Models of Public Policy: Rationalism
A. Most sound policy = greatest possible net benefit (greatest good for greatest number)
B. Method is a cost-benefit analysis
1. Realization of the greatest possible net benefit to society
2. Trying to:
a. Design a policy should consider the principles that society values
b. Develop an assortment of policy alternatives that would satisfy society based on those principles
c. Evaluate the policy alternatives
d. Compare the alternatives and select the one best alternative
VII. Models of Public Policy: Public Choice Model
A. Anthony Downs
B. Decisions from voting for candidates whose policies provide the most gratification
C. Policy arena is a marketplace of ideas
1. Decisions about public policymaking are made by a wide range of individuals, all of whose actions are oriented toward the realization of their self-interests
2. Argue that self-interest-oriented decisions by individuals in the policy arena can benefit all
VIII. Models of Public Policy: Group-Theory Model
A. Policy is the result of competing special interest groups
1. Example: Abortion
2. Roe vs. Wade (1973)
B. Policymakers determine where to set policy based on the competition of the interest groups that are active in the particular task environment for the policy area
C.The fulcrum (triangle) is located closer to the larger Group A’s position in deference to A’s size, but not completely at A’s extreme position in deference to Group B’s existence.
IX. Models of Public Policy: Sub-government Model of Public Policy
A. Iron Triangle (see chapter 5)
1. In any particular policy area, there is an “iron triangle” partnership involving congressional committees, executive department or agency, and interest groups active in that policy area that dominates policy in that policy area
X. Models of Public Policy: Elitism
A. C. Wright Mills
B. Policy is determined by the wealthy and affluent
C. Elites provide policy direction to government officials
D. Government officials impose policy execution to the masses
XI. Instruments of Public Policy
A. Private-sector organizations have no mechanisms for compelling the public to act in accordance with their preferences
B. The range of instruments available to the government to influence citizens’ behavior is much wider than the range of those available to other entities
C. Max Weber (1918) wrote that government has “a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.”
1. Imprisonment and Capital Punishment
2.Punish the disobedience to government policy
3. Fines
a. Monetary fines paid for disobedience (e.g., speeding tickets)
4. Conscription
a. Military service – "draft"
5. Taking of Property
a. Eminent domain
6. Taxation
a. Power to tax certain goods and activities
b. Used to discourage and encourage certain behaviors
7. User Fees
a. Paying tolls
b. Postal service
8. Subsidies
a. Government attempts to gain cooperation by offering compensation
9. Benefits (Entitlements)
a. Medicaid and Medicare
b. Veterans benefits
c. Social Security
i. The law describes the qualifications for obtaining the benefit, and every individual who qualifies is entitled to the benefit
ii. Program officials do not have the discretion to deny the individual’s application for the benefit to which he is legally entitled
D. Adjusting Monetary Variables: The Federal Reserve Board affects the economy by adjusting the nation’s monetary arrangements for the purpose of causing interest rates on loans to rise or fall
E. Propaganda and Persuasion
1. Government tries to obtain support and influence behavior
F. Laissez-Faire Inaction
1.Government simply does nothing
a. NOTE: Inaction is still an action!
XII. Public Policy and Money
A. Hardly any public policy to accomplish something can be implemented without money
1. Duty of the legislature to arrange for the Executive Branch to have funds so that the laws can be administered
a. Congress enacts laws for such purposes as to impose taxes so that revenue can be raised
b. Congress enacts appropriation laws to appropriate money for the use of the Executive Branch
B. Appropriation Process
1. In January the President presents Congress a proposed budget, developed by the Office of Management and Budget, for the next fiscal year (October 1)
2. Congress takes the proposed budget and modify it based on their own preferences
3. Congress then enacts a set of appropriation laws
4. The President then signs the laws and the budget for the next fiscal year goes into effect
5. This process works on the incrementalism model of public policy
C. Going Over Budget
1. A government bureau must exercise discipline in ensuring that it will not overspend its appropriation
a. OMB officials determine that a bureau is failing to “live within its means,” the officials may proceed to intervene in the bureau’s managerial processes
2. Entitlement Programs cannot “run out” of money
a. The president is obligated to ensure that funds are made available for entitlement programs, without limit, even as new applicants come forward and demonstrate their eligibility
3. Entitlement programs grow, but they never go away
a. The beneficiaries of an entitlement program will fight like lions if their entitlement is threatened
b. The late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. observed ruefully that Social Security is “the ‘third rail’ of American politics,” so dangerous is it for elected officials to even speak about decreasing the program’s benefits.
D. Deficit Spending
1. Spending more for programs than it is collecting in revenue
2. Reasons:
a. “pork” projects for members’ states and congressional districts to get re-elected
b. Creation of entitlement programs to get re-elected
c. Continuing involvement in extraordinarily expensive military operations in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq
3.Much of this debt is owed to foreign investors, who will—sooner or later—want to be repaid with interest!


Test Your Knowledge

How well do you understand U.S. Public Policy? Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

Eminent domain


For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 12 References on pages 349-350 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

Policy Basics: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process From The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
This backgrounder describes the laws and procedures under which Congress decides how much money to spend each year, what to spend it on, and how to raise the money to cover that spending. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 lays out a formal framework for developing and enforcing a “budget resolution” to guide the process but in recent years the process has not always worked as envisioned.