Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Political Agenda

What determine what gets on the political agenda at the national, state and local level? Which issues get to be debated and considered,  which never see the light of day?

The most common answer to this question is interest groups. Interest groups invest money in campaigns and then in lobbying and their issues get considered and often accepted by policy-makers. There is no doubt that they exert enormous clout in determining the outcome of public policy issues.  However, I really don't think it is that simple. I don't think interest groups or even political parties actually get to decide most of what is considered in government. Looking at the policy agenda in the U.S. the key issues appear to be jobs and the economy, health care, gay marriage, immigration, education and the budget deficit . While interest groups may play a disproportionate role in determining many of the alternatives that are considered to solve these problems, they don't get to pick which ones draw the attention of policy-makers.

Author and professor, John Kingdon in his classic works
Agendas, Alternative and Public Policy  identifies three policy streams that most often need to come together for an issue to be seriously considered by policy-makers.

1. Problems - problems come up and have to be dealt with. I worked with a former Federal Reserve Board economist during the Locke Administration who was always frustrated that the Governor's agenda never seemed to stay the course. For him, it was always issue du jour. You are working on economic development and then all of sudden energy prices skyrocket and you have to drop it and work on energy issues. Problems become the focus because citizens expect elected officials to deal with them. But problems in themselves aren't enough.

2. Solutions - if a policy-maker is going to consider an issue, she is going to want to know that the problem can be solved. Otherwise, an enormous amount of political capital will be spent and you will end up looking pretty foolish. The property tax is unfair because it doesn't include the value of financial assets in the valuation of property. But how would you do it? Could you administer it or would cheating be so prominent it wouldn't be worth it?  Tornadoes, earthquakes and Tsunamis are horrible events that should be stopped, but can you? A more realistic example might be health care reform - in a country so ideological devoted to the free market, can you have a solution that doesn't involve government ownership?

3.  Politics - there has to be the right political alignment for the issue to move through the political process. Somebody or some people who are policy-makers have to make it a priority. Health care reform wasn't politically ripe during the Cater Administration because it wasn't the priority of the president and the political mood of the country was souring on government solutions. On the other hand, the election of Barak Obama was accompanied by large majorities in the House and the Senate and Obama made it the #1 priority of his administration. Climate change was clearly on the agenda in 2008 with major Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the President seeking legislation. But the 2008 recession knocked it off the agenda as concerns moved away from the environmental protection to it's effect on jobs.

Politicians who understand these forces are often said to have a good sense of timing.  An advocate for education reform might hold off on passing major investments in education because they know that during a severe budget crisis there is no viable financial solution. But when the economy improves, and revenues are back on track, they may have a solution in hand and will work ensure that the public sees that it is a problem worth solving. When that time comes, they will jump on any news on comparative test scores or school failures try and put the issue on the agenda. Advocates for small government jumped on their chance to shrink government when the great recession and tax cuts led to huge budget deficits.

Given the problems we are facing today, the political climate and the availability of realistic solutions, what issues might be ripe for getting on the agenda?

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