In 1999 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agreed to pay restitution to African American farmers as part of what the Washington Post labeled "one of the most successful civil rights lawsuits in American history" (Tucker, 2002). At the heart of the settlement was the recognition that the USDA had engaged in and sanctioned a pattern of racial discrimination in awarding loans to farmers since the inception of many of the loan programs as part of the New Deal restructuring of agricultural policy in the 1930s. The USDA admission of racial discrimination in loan practices, long thought to be the provenance of private lenders, appeared to be an interesting case of public malfeasance. After all, the dilemma of civil rights had been settled at the macro level of the polity through a combination of landmark court cases and the passage of civil rights statutes during the 1950s and 1960s, which produced a civil rights regime. So, clearly, USDA discriminatory practices were a case of a wayward agency ignoring, if not sabotaging, the principles enshrined in the civil rights regime.
Actually, few believe the question of civil rights was settled vis-o-vis legislative fiat, landmark court cases, or executive order. Rather than view USDA actions as those of an agency out of control, we suggest they demonstrate the ability of sub-systems to resist policy demands and weather punctuations that appear to give rise to policy regimes. Understanding the ability of the agriculture subsystem to resist adding a civil rights dimension to agricultural policy requires a brief review of the literature dealing with subsystems, policy equilibria, and policy regimes, a task we take up in the first section our study. The second section develops indicators of positive and negative feedback and uses them to track the evolution of agriculture policy between 1935 and 2010. We find that the agriculture policy subsystem has been a system under stress at various points in time as the topic of agriculture policy becomes salient and the image of agriculture shifts over time. That said, the subsystem manages to insulate itself from the civil rights revolution, only considering the issue after the court ordered redress in 1999, and even then on terms that tend to shut out most African American farmers. The issue evolution of agricultural support programs, and their insulation from civil rights policy, is a prime example of how subsystems use negative feedback to resist change.
Squaring a Circle? Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET), Subsystems, and Policy Regimes
PET has been used in a variety of policy realms to examine the interplay of positive and negative feedback in the maintenance of institutionally induced policy equilibria (Baumgartner & Jones, 1991, 1993, 2002; Cashore & Howlett, 2007; Givel, 2006, 2008; May, Sapotichne, & Workman, 2010; Repetto, 2006; True, Jones, & Baum-gartner, 1999; Wood, 2006; Worsham, 2006). The argument, in short, is that policy equilibria, which foster an incremental inertia that gives the appearance of stability over lengthy periods of time, are subject to radical change at opportune moments. Whether change occurs depends on the ability of subsystems to contain challenges to existing policy arrangements. The beauty of PET is its ability to accommodate both the incremental nature of so much public policy, as well as explain the moments of dramatic change that on occasion punctuate the seeming calm that characterizes so much of American politics.
PET, drawing on group theory, suggests that institutions are designed to operate as self-correcting mechanisms. Subsystems are the institutional embodiment of this self-equilibrating mechanism and the subsystem approach itself is a direct descendant of group theories (Balogh, 1991; Baumgartner & Jones, 1993; Bernstein, 1955; Bosso, 1987; Campbell, 1988; Cater, 1964; Freeman, 1955, 1965; Griffith, 1939; …