Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Punctuated Equilibrium and Congressional Budgeting

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Punctuated Equilibrium and Congressional Budgeting

Article excerpt

Recent research has suggested that punctuated equilibrium models best describe the outputs of policymakers. While this literature has convincingly demonstrated that the distributions of policy outputs conform to the expectations of punctuated equilibrium theory, little attention has been paid to testing hypotheses related to the causes of punctuated equilibrium distributions. This research note illustrates a method for testing hypotheses related to punctuated equilibrium theory with a test of the effects of congressional reorganization. The results suggest that congressional reorganization has made the budgetary outputs of Congress less consistent with punctuated equilibrium theory.

Recent attention to policy change has shifted from comparisons across space (cross-sectional studies) to comparisons across time. A popular approach to modeling policy change across time is Baumgartner and Jones' punctuated equilibrium model of policy change (1993). In this model, policies experience periods of stasis punctuated by rare periods of dramatic change. This model has been applied to a wide range of policy outputs and has become a widely accepted account of policy outputs (Jones, Larsen, Sulkin 2003; John 2003). It is now important to move from demonstrations of the existence of punctuated equilibrium to testing explanations of punctuated equilibrium. This writing presents a method for testing hypotheses related to punctuated equilibrium and illustrates this method by testing a hypothesis related to reform of congressional policymaking in the 1970s. The first section reviews the evidence supporting punctuated equilibrium theory in policy research. Next, a hypothesis relating congressional reform efforts to congressional policymaking is tested. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the conceptual and methodological limitations of the punctuated equilibrium literature.


Baumgartner and Jones' (1993) widely praised account of agenda setting processes in American politics introduced the notion that policy change proceeds through a punctuated equilibrium process rather than a smooth, evolutionary process. Baumgartner and Jones argued that the nature of feedback processes in agenda setting create a distinctive pattern of policy change. When negative feedback limits policy change (as it does in most times and most policies, the authors argued) one should observe little change. On the rare occasions when sources of negative feedback are overcome, positive feedback mechanisms focus attention on problems and promote radical change. The result is observed policy histories wherein we can observe long periods of stasis (controlled by negative feedback) interrupted by rare periods of change (controlled by positive feedback).

The punctuated equilibrium theory of policy change was relatively untested until True, Jones and Baumgartner compared observed frequencies of budgetary change to the expectations that budgets were the product of random, external shocks (1999). True, Jones, and Baumgartner found that federal budgetary changes by policy area were not distributed in a manner consistent with the beliefs in a policy system that rationally responded to random shocks. Instead, they found a series of budgetary changes that included more small changes and more large changes that expected. This observation was consistent with the expectations of their punctuated equilibrium theory of policy change.

Jones developed the punctuated equilibrium theory further, grounding it in bounded rationality theories of human decisionmaking (Jones 2001). Jones argued that human decision makers do not possess sufficient cognitive tools or information to respond in the manner that rational choice theorists assume. Instead, decisionmaking is a process that includes substantial limitations. These cognitive and informational limitations create punctuated equilibrium decision processes. Jones demonstrated the descriptive power of the punctuated equilibrium process using examples from congressional policymaking and economic data. …

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