Domestic Policy Making
Light, Paul C., Presidential Studies Quarterly
Presidents have been making domestic policy since George Washington appointed the nation's first postmaster general. But as the institutional presidency has grown with the passage of time and crisis, presidents have become increasingly active as agenda setters, decision makers, coalition builders, and implementers of a much larger portfolio of federal domestic policies. By the 1950s, the textbook image of a presidency-centered government was in full blossom, and expectations for presidential leadership of domestic policy were at what appears to have been a twenty-year post-World War II peak (see Cronin 1975).
The prevailing wisdom today is that this presidency-centered vision of policy making was an inappropriate reading of both constitutional intent and legislative reality. Few scholars have made the revisionist case more effectively on constitutional grounds than Jones (1994): "Focusing exclusively on the presidency can lead to a seriously distorted picture of how the national government does its work," he warns in his award-winning assessment. "The plain fact is that the United States does not have a presidential system. It has a separated system" (p. 2). As Jones argues, a president's impact on the domestic agenda is limited by resources, advantages, and strategic position. Some presidents enter offices with greater opportunity, some with less, but all are bound by constitutional checks and balances. To expect the president's agenda to remain dominant year after year is to ignore the normal ebb and flow of power built into the very fiber of the federal system.
At the same time, few have made a more rigorous critique of the presidency-centered approach on the basis of legislative realities than Edwards and Wood (1996). Surveying a vast inventory of presidential activity, the two argue that presidents do more following than leading when they set the policy agenda. Paying attention to the media and events is hardly surprising, according to Edwards and Wood, "because presidents have limited institutional resources and do not desire to be influential on all issues. As risk averse actors, however, they are ever watchful and respond when other institutions deem and issue worthy of greater consideration" (p. 26).
None of the revisionists suggest that the presidency is irrelevant to domestic policy, of course. Bond and Fleisher (1990) argue that "a president's greatest influence over policy comes from the agenda he pursues and the way it is packaged" (p. 230). Jones (1994) notes that presidents retain "significant influence in setting priorities, certifying certain issues, proposing policy solutions, and reacting to policy initiatives of others (such as those increasingly offered by more policy-active members of Congress)"(p. 181), and the ubiquitous Edwards and a second coauthor Barrett (1998), conclude their analysis of 268 presidential proposals by acknowledging that "the president is very successful in obtaining agenda space for his potentially significant legislative proposals.... Once on the agenda, 40 percent of presidential initiatives become law, nearly twice the rate of congressional initiatives" (p. 19).
Rather, the revisionists merely suggest that a president's influence is more conditional than some researchers, including myself, may have suggested in past studies of the modern record. As I acknowledge in the preface to the third edition of The President's Agenda (Light 1999a), the "twenty years covered in the first edition of this book seemed like a very long time to me in 1980." But in doubling the number of years covered in the analysis,
this third edition provides a very different portrait of the agenda-setting process.... It is entirely possible, as I argue in the new chapter that caps this edition, that there is less room today for policy innovation as new party politics, budget pressures, and demographic destiny work their will in constraining presidential imagination. (p. xi)
This article advances the mea culpa even further by examining changes in the two basic forces that meet in the presidential policy process: policy, which defines what a president decides, and process, which defines how a president decides. Traditionally, presidency scholars have treated policy as something to be manipulated by the president, not vice versa. But just as presidents are part of a larger constitutional system, they also are part of a larger policy system in which ideas, problems, solutions, and so forth seek participants wherever they might be found. As such, public policy in general, and domestic policy in specific, would be the product of bumping across two very different spheres of change. Even if the forces governing presidential policy somehow remain stable over time, which they do not, the forces shaping policy are constantly changing. Americans are getting older even as the White House staff is getting younger; think tanks are multiplying even as the president's agenda appears to be getting smaller; policy research is becoming more polarized even as presidents centralize the appointments process. Although presidents most certainly shape the world of policy as they select among competing ideas, the rise and fall of ideas in good currency clearly shapes what presidents perceive as viable options.
This article will not examine these changes in all their glory. Others with more pages with which to work already have begun that work (see, for example, Weir 1998). But it is a perfectly appropriate place to ask whether the presidency as an institution is properly configured for making domestic policy. The first section of the article will examine the parallel and often unrelated changes in both what presidents decide and how they decide it, the second will ask how those changes may have affected the Bush and Clinton domestic policy agendas, and the third will ask whether it is time to reinvent presidential policy making as a result. The central question in this broad reconnaissance is whether the presidency still has the capacity to make its proper constitutional contribution to making domestic policy.
The Headwaters of Policy Choice
Domestic policy is often treated as the stuff of which presidential dreams are made--as something to be worked on, shaped, addressed, and molded to a president's priorities, not as a source of independent volatility and constraint. But domestic policy works its will on presidents and the presidency too. It shapes the office even as the office seeks to shape it, whether by placing new issues on the agenda or bringing new participants to the fore, by creating short-term crises or breaking down existing coalitions.
More to the point of this article, there is ample evidence that domestic policy is becoming less responsive to presidential intent. Building on Kingdon's (1995) imagery of policy-making streams, the headwaters of domestic policy seem to be more volatile and unforgiving than ever before, suggesting what Weir (1998) calls a "a peculiar mix of opportunity and constraint" as presidents begin the process of sorting their domestic policy preferences (p. 5). Ideas appear to be growing more polarized, opportunities for action more constrained, problems more intractable, assumptions more politicized, research more ideological, solutions more varied, and implementation agents more beleaguered and inflexible. As the following pages will suggest, it is not clear that presidents could shape domestic policy even if they had the institutional capacity to do so. They may have little choice but to ride the rapids as best they can, using the increasingly bureaucratized paddles at their disposal.
Consider, for example, the volatility embedded in the issue polarization that now surrounds the presidential policy process. Fukuyama (1992) may celebrate the end of history and the rise of a single theory of governance, but presidents confront a steady fragmentation of domestic policy pressure. If Weir (1998) is correct, for example, the 1990s produced a rising tide of social policy polarization, which in turn altered the nature of institutional debate:
Conflict over social policy became the flashpoint for debates about the fundamental principles that should guide the scope and premises of government activity for the next generation. These unusually sharp ideological divisions among political elites were nurtured and amplified by electoral and institutional shifts that made congressional parties especially homogenized and polarized. (p. 8)
Although some scholars question whether the past was really so quiet (see, for example, Jones, True, and Baumgartner 1997), there appears to be a growing consensus that polarization is on the rise in Congress (see, for example, Ferejohn 1998) and among policy elites in general (see, for example, Peterson 1998).
Then consider the constraints embedded in the aging of New Deal programs such as Social Security, which are creaking forward under steadily increasing demographic pressure and automatic indexing (Weaver 1988). Or consider the volatility embedded in growing competition among the nation's think tanks, which have quadrupled in number from seventy to three hundred since Lyndon Johnson celebrated the contributions of the Brookings Institution as a national institution in 1966. Not only has the number of think tanks increased dramatically, Rich (1999) argues, ideological polarization has also increased:
Many new think tanks represent avowed ideologies, and many aggressively and quite visibly market their research products. The founding of the Heritage Foundation in 1973 signified the birth of a new type of politically aggressive and openly ideological think tank. Since then, ideological, marketing oriented organizations modeled after Heritage have proliferated, particularly on the political right (e.g., the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Progress and Freedom Foundation), but also in the center (e.g., the Progressive Policy Institute) and on the left (e.g., the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for National Policy). (pp. 3-4)
Then consider the changing landscape of public opinion, in which presidents have never been more focused on going public (Kernell 1997) or measuring public opinion (Cohen 1995; Jacobs and Shapiro 1995) but seemingly never less able to move. Indeed, much of the revisionism discussed above reflected an effort to explain the decline of presidential policy leadership in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. With the parties in decline and bargaining resources in short supply, Edwards (1999) writes that "presidents see themselves increasingly dependent on public support to accomplish their goals; and they devote substantial time, energy, and resources to obtaining this support." Unfortunately, the president's ability to build coalitions in support of domestic policy is marginal at best, prompting Edwards to muse about the relative benefits of a weakened presidency:
Those who see little need for federal action or who are skeptical of national policies are likely to be more satisfied with a presidency in which the White House is rarely able to rally the public and Congress to pass significant new legislation. Those who believe that there is a pressing need for significant legislation at the national level are likely to be more concerned. (p. 27)
The Institutionalized Response
The question for this article is not whether the streams of problems, alternatives, and participants that shape domestic policy have become more complex but whether the presidential policy process is equipped to deal with the new opportunities and constraints effectively. One set of answers is likely to be found in the structure and process of presidential …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Domestic Policy Making. Contributors: Light, Paul C. - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 30. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2000. Page number: 109. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.