Fighting "Big Government": Frames, Federalism, and Social Policy Reform in the United States

By Beland, Daniel; de Chantal, Francois, Vergniolle | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Fighting "Big Government": Frames, Federalism, and Social Policy Reform in the United States


Beland, Daniel, de Chantal, Francois, Vergniolle, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Abstract: In recent decades, historical institutionalism has contributed to the political and sociological analysis of public policy. While drawing on this fruitful theoretical approach, this article argues that institutionalist scholars should pay more attention to the specific ways in which ideas impact policy processes. In order to underline the role of ideas in policy-making, this article examines the interaction between frames, federalism, and political strategies in the United States, a country in which recent attempts to decentralize social policy have been especially spectacular and ideologically-driven. Two key pieces of legislation enacted during the Clinton presidency are examined: the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act and, more importantly, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Starting with the fact that US conservatives have monopolized the issue of decentralisation in their struggle against federal social programmes, this article shows that attempts to create a New Federalism in the field of social policy have failed. Moreover, it demonstrates that the critique of centralization rooted in a well-established ideological repertoire is politically relevant only to the extent that there is a budgetary rationale justifying it. When it comes to conservative social issues like "family values" and "personal responsibility," this critique loses much of its political appeal and "moral centralization" prevails.

Resume: Au cours des recentes decennies, l'institutionnalisme historique a contribue a l'analyse politique et sociologique des politiques publiques. Tout en s'inspirant de cette approche si utile, cet article soutient que les chercheurs institutionnalistes devraient se pencher davantage sur la maniere dont les idees affectent les processus d'elaboration des politiques publiques. A fin de souligner le role des idees dans ces processus, l'article examine l'interaction entre les cadres ideologiques, le federalisme et les strategies politiques aux Etats-Unis, un pays dans lequel les tentatives recentes de decentralisation des politiques sociales ont ete a la fois spectaculaires et fortement marquees ideologiquement. Deux legislations essentielles adoptees durant la presidence Clinton sont analysees: l' Unfunded Mandates Reform Act et, plus important encore, le Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. En partant du fait que les conservateurs ont monopolise la reference a la decentralisation dans leur lutte contre les programmes sociaux federaux, cet article montre que les tentatives de creer un Nouveau Federalisme dans le champ des politiques sociales ont echoue. De plus, il est demontre que la critique de la decentralisation ancree dans une repertoire ideologique bien etabli est politiquement pertinente uniquement dans la mesure ou une justification budgetaire existe. Lorsqu'il est question d'enjeux sociaux conservateurs comme la "responsabilite individuelle", cette critique perd de son interet et la "centralisation morale" triomphe.

In recent decades, historical institutionalism has contributed to the political and sociological analysis of public policy. (1) This is especially true in the area of social policy analysis, where the frequently cited contributions of authors such as Paul Pierson and Theda Skocpol have influenced the way social scientists analyse welfare state politics (Pierson, 1994; Skocpol, 1992). For institutionalist scholars, party systems, state administrative capacities, and formal political institutions structure the strategies of bureaucrats and elected officials while shaping the way in which interest groups and social movements influence policy outcomes (Maioni, 1998). Rejecting a static, a-historical vision of political structuration, institutionalist scholars have also recognized that the order in which a country undergoes large-scale political transformations makes a significant difference in the character and outcome of those changes. …

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