Evaluating the Issues
In divided government, majority party leaders like Thomas O'Neill and George Mitchell choose priorities to advance a particular set of strategic goals. But goals alone do not dictate which issues become priorities. The issues themselves matter. Issues like tort reform or drug abuse have intrinsic characteristics, such as related fiscal costs or the nature of political support. They are not lumps of clay molded to fit a particular strategic need. In fact, they vary enormously from each other. Party leaders have to sift through a great number of issues being considered in Congress, hoping to find a match with their goals. But how do they determine which issues on the "congressional agenda" match their goals? Before designating priorities, party leaders must evaluate or redefine these issues.
Party leaders assess issues along a number of dimensions salient to their goals. From their perspective, five criteria or variables affect these assessments: advocate or entrepreneur strength, support in Congress, public opinion, the presence of a triggering event, and a composite of fiscal cost and legal discretion called "scope/discretion." In effect, these criteria serve as intervening variables between leader goals and leader priorities. The first four are self-explanatory, but the last is worth explaining here. Every issue has certain fiscal costs attached to it. Although these costs are certainly flexible, leaders have an initial sense of what budgetary difficulties lie ahead if the issue is addressed. These costs can be mitigated or even ignored, however, if leaders have no choice but to make the issue a priority. By law, some issues must be addressed—the debt ceiling, the federal budget—whereas others allow wider discretion. Because they affect each other so, I have combined cost and discretion into a single variable.
These five "issue dimensions" help leaders to develop a "profile" or definition for each issue. This process helps them to find a match with their strategic goals. If the profile suggested by a certain goal matches that of an issue, then leaders have found an issue they can designate as a priority. To show competence or bipartisan agreement, for example, leaders look for an issue that seems pressing and has a good chance of final passage. That issue would fit the profile. If a leader wants to show disagreement with Republicans, he or she will search for an issue