Reforms at Risk: What Happens After Major Policy Changes Are Enacted

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Overview

Reforms at Risk is the first book to closely examine what happens to sweeping and seemingly successful policy reforms after they are passed. Most books focus on the politics of reform adoption, yet as Eric Patashnik shows here, the political struggle does not end when major reforms become enacted. Why do certain highly praised policy reforms endure while others are quietly reversed or eroded away?

Patashnik peers into some of the most critical arenas of domestic-policy reform—including taxes, agricultural subsidies, airline deregulation, emissions trading, welfare state reform, and reform of government procurement—to identify the factors that enable reform measures to survive. He argues that the reforms that stick destroy an existing policy subsystem and reconfigure the political dynamic. Patashnik demonstrates that sustainable reforms create positive policy feedbacks, transform institutions, and often unleash the ''creative destructiveness'' of market forces.

Reforms at Risk debunks the argument that reforms inevitably fail because Congress is prey to special interests, and the book provides a more realistic portrait of the possibilities and limits of positive change in American government. It is essential reading for scholars and practitioners of U.S. politics and public policy, offering practical lessons for anyone who wants to ensure that hard-fought reform victories survive.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Policy History
[Patashnik] produces not only a helpful primer for policy entrepreneurs on how to design reforms with self-reinforcing features, but also a fine-grained scholarly analysis of the limits of previous work on policymaking. It is an instant classic that will be widely read by practitioners and scholars alike. . . . Eric Patashnik has written a fascinating and enormously important book that tells us how policy designs help shape the long-term sustainability of general-interest reforms. . . . It is a brilliant book that confirms Patashnik's place among the top scholars examining the interaction between political science and public policy.
— Andrea Louise Campbell
Governance
This is a very fine book—an example of American political science at its best, which is to say, very good indeed. . . . Fine scholarship informs and leaves the reader arguing with it throughout; by these two measures this is fine scholarship.
— Michael Moran
Journal of Politics
As the Obama administration and Congressional leaders address these and other challenges, they would do well to read Eric Patashnik's new book, Reforms at Risk. It is a book that adds to our base of knowledge and also provides insights that can be used to improve public policy.
— John Hoornbeek
Policy Sciences
[I]n contrast to portions of the political science literature that try to portray post-reform politics as a matter of cycles, or coalitions, or institutional design, Patashnik provides a more complex and, to me, more realistic account of the political dynamics, including the importance of timing, historical circumstance, and learning from experience.
— J. Samuel Fitch
Choice - S.Q. Kelly
Tremendous effort is invested by political scientists in an attempt to understanding the conditions that produce significant policy change. In this important book, Patashnik considers the fate of major policy changes.
Democracy - Elaine Kamarck
Eric M. Patashnik's excellent book . . . is an important book, for obvious reasons—as the Obama Administration settles in to a long, hard slog of reform across the broad swath of government activity, it will need to understand not only how to get reforms passed, but how to make sure they're carried out.
Journal of Policy History - Andrea Louise Campbell
[Patashnik] produces not only a helpful primer for policy entrepreneurs on how to design reforms with self-reinforcing features, but also a fine-grained scholarly analysis of the limits of previous work on policymaking. It is an instant classic that will be widely read by practitioners and scholars alike. . . . Eric Patashnik has written a fascinating and enormously important book that tells us how policy designs help shape the long-term sustainability of general-interest reforms. . . . It is a brilliant book that confirms Patashnik's place among the top scholars examining the interaction between political science and public policy.
Governance - Michael Moran
This is a very fine book—an example of American political science at its best, which is to say, very good indeed. . . . Fine scholarship informs and leaves the reader arguing with it throughout; by these two measures this is fine scholarship.
Journal of Politics - John Hoornbeek
As the Obama administration and Congressional leaders address these and other challenges, they would do well to read Eric Patashnik's new book, Reforms at Risk. It is a book that adds to our base of knowledge and also provides insights that can be used to improve public policy.
Policy Sciences - J. Samuel Fitch
[I]n contrast to portions of the political science literature that try to portray post-reform politics as a matter of cycles, or coalitions, or institutional design, Patashnik provides a more complex and, to me, more realistic account of the political dynamics, including the importance of timing, historical circumstance, and learning from experience.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2009 Louis Brownlow Book Award, National Academy of Public Administration

"Tremendous effort is invested by political scientists in an attempt to understanding the conditions that produce significant policy change. In this important book, Patashnik considers the fate of major policy changes."—S.Q. Kelly, Choice

"Eric M. Patashnik's excellent book . . . is an important book, for obvious reasons—as the Obama Administration settles in to a long, hard slog of reform across the broad swath of government activity, it will need to understand not only how to get reforms passed, but how to make sure they're carried out."—Elaine Kamarck, Democracy

"[Patashnik] produces not only a helpful primer for policy entrepreneurs on how to design reforms with self-reinforcing features, but also a fine-grained scholarly analysis of the limits of previous work on policymaking. It is an instant classic that will be widely read by practitioners and scholars alike. . . . Eric Patashnik has written a fascinating and enormously important book that tells us how policy designs help shape the long-term sustainability of general-interest reforms. . . . It is a brilliant book that confirms Patashnik's place among the top scholars examining the interaction between political science and public policy."—Andrea Louise Campbell, Journal of Policy History

"This is a very fine book—an example of American political science at its best, which is to say, very good indeed. . . . Fine scholarship informs and leaves the reader arguing with it throughout; by these two measures this is fine scholarship."—Michael Moran, Governance

"As the Obama administration and Congressional leaders address these and other challenges, they would do well to read Eric Patashnik's new book, Reforms at Risk. It is a book that adds to our base of knowledge and also provides insights that can be used to improve public policy."—John Hoornbeek, Journal of Politics

"[I]n contrast to portions of the political science literature that try to portray post-reform politics as a matter of cycles, or coalitions, or institutional design, Patashnik provides a more complex and, to me, more realistic account of the political dynamics, including the importance of timing, historical circumstance, and learning from experience."—J. Samuel Fitch, Policy Sciences

Choice
Tremendous effort is invested by political scientists in an attempt to understanding the conditions that produce significant policy change. In this important book, Patashnik considers the fate of major policy changes.
— S.Q. Kelly
Democracy
Eric M. Patashnik's excellent book . . . is an important book, for obvious reasons—as the Obama Administration settles in to a long, hard slog of reform across the broad swath of government activity, it will need to understand not only how to get reforms passed, but how to make sure they're carried out.
— Elaine Kamarck
Journal of Public and International Affairs
Van Cott has made a significant contribution to the study of indigenous party politics and the development of political parties in general. The book is required reading for scholars and practitioners interested in the future of indigenous movements and their implications for the quality of democratic governance.
— Ryan Carlin
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Eric M. Patashnik is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia. His books include "Putting Trust in the US Budget: Federal Trust Funds and the Politics of Commitment".

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Read an Excerpt

Reforms at Risk What Happens After Major Policy Changes Are Enacted
By Eric M. Patashnik Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13897-8


Chapter One Introduction: General-Interest Policymaking and the Politics of Reform Sustainability

To innovate is not to reform. -Edmund Burke

There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to institute a new order of things. -Niccolo Machiavelli

The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. -Alexis de Tocqueville

On October 22, 1986, lawmakers from both parties gathered on the South Lawn of the White House and applauded as President Ronald Reagan signed into law the most comprehensive revision of the federal tax code in a half century. The landmark Tax Reform Act of 1986 eliminated or curtailed dozens of shelters, loopholes, and other tax breaks enjoyed by powerful corporations and well-heeled investors. By withdrawing tax preferences from a favored few, the federal government was able to sharply lower tax rates for millions of low- and middle-income Americans without increasing the federal budget deficit. While the tax reform law was not flawless, it made the federal tax system fairer and more efficient. At the signing ceremony, Reagan called the Tax Reform Act "the best antipoverty bill, the best pro-family measure, and the bestjob-creation program ever to come out of the Congress of the United States." "At last. It's a day to stop and take unashamed satisfaction in a triumph of the whole over the parts," editorialized The New York Times. Only a few months earlier, it looked like this historic day would never arrive. Hundreds of high-priced Washington lobbyists worked feverishly to bury the measure in committee. But Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Packwood (R-OR), Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), and President Reagan came together to defeat the special interests.

For scholars and journalists alike, the importance of general-interest reforms like the 1986 Tax Reform Act goes beyond their substantive policy accomplishments. These stunning reform victories signal that American national government has the capacity to overcome parochial concerns and serve a larger public interest. The American state can fulfill its core purpose of promoting the general welfare.

Unfortunately, many of the accomplishments of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 have been gradually eroded. The remarkable 1986 coalition between supply-side Republicans and tax-reforming Democrats has "disintegrated" over the past twenty years, leaving the reform vulnerable and defenseless. Although important "vestiges" of the celebrated measure remain, tax policymaking dynamics have largely regressed to their pre-1986 ways. Politicians of both parties have been keen to create special tax preferences for capital gains income, educational savings accounts, and the energy industry. Some of these new tax preferences have failed to achieve their own purposes because they offer subsidies to activities that would take place without them. Since the late 1980s, the core principles of tax simplification and horizontal equity have been honored mainly in the breach. The federal tax code has become less neutral, less economically efficient, and far more opaque and convoluted. While individual tax shelters have been curbed, tax shelters for corporations have proliferated. These developments have been demoralizing to politicians, public interest lobbyists, and policy experts alike. "The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was a great leap forward," said former Congressional Budget Office director Robert D. Reischauer. "Now we're slowly undoing the good that we did then." "I feel like crying," said Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR), one of the prime movers of the 1986 reform.

The failure of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 to consolidate its gains and re-configure political dynamics is just one example of a larger and more worrisome phenomenon-the reversal or unraveling of general-interest reforms after their adoption. By general-interest reform, I mean a non-incremental change of an existing line of policymaking intended to rationalize governmental undertakings or to distribute benefits to some broad constituency. Examples of general-interest reforms include agricultural reform, transport deregulation, procurement reform, and private pension reform. The targets of general-interest reforms are the policy sins and social pathologies of the day before yesterday. The long-term sustainability of reform projects, however, depends on what happens to them tomorrow. By sustainability, I mean the capacity of a reform not only to maintain its structural integrity over time, but to use its core principles to guide its course amid inevitable pressures for change.

The threats to reform sustainability are multiple and mutually reinforcing. They include interest group power, rent seeking behavior, and parochialism. Narrow interests can be expected to press their particular demands up to a point where the organizational costs in effort exceed the expected benefits of winning. But clientelism is not the whole of the sustainability problem. Threats to reform sustainability also include the rational ignorance and myopia of mass publics, the political allure of empty symbolism, and the temptation of politicians to serve the organized and meddle with markets rather than promote more general-interests. In sum, the passage of a reform law is only the beginning of a political struggle. Reform enactment could indicate a sharp, permanent break with prior patterns of governmental activity. It may signal that the political climate has fundamentally changed in ways that will redound to the benefit of ordinary citizens. By itself, however, the passage of a reform act does not settle anything.

A PREVIEW OF THE ARGUMENT OF THIS BOOK

General-interest reforms are frequently adopted with great fanfare, but their success simply cannot be taken for granted. The losers from reform cannot be counted on to vanish without another fight, and new actors may arrive on the scene who will seek to undo a reform to further their own agendas. Rather than a one-shot static affair, policy reform must be seen as a dynamic process, in which political forces seeking to protect a general-interest reform may be opposed by forces seeking to undermine it. Indeed, sustaining reforms against the threats of reversal and erosion may be even tougher than winning the reforms' adoption in the first place. To draw an analogy from everyday life, losing weight is hard, but the real challenge is keeping it off.

Yet if making reforms stick is a formidable task, it is not an impossible one. The sustainability of reforms turns on the reconfiguration of political dynamics. Concentrated interests must be prevented from reasserting themselves. This may entail the disabling of power structures that shield narrow groups from democratic accountability. Equally important, the reforms must produce a self-reinforcing dynamic. Often that may involve a Schumpeterian process of "creative destruction" in which group identities and coalitional patterns shift, would-be rent seekers are divided, political expectations change, and social actors become invested in the new policy regime.

After reform, governance should become less particularistic or more technically or administratively rational. In some cases, the scope of the government's interventions may narrow. But reform does not extract public policy from ultimate dependence on the political process. All reforms require, at a bare minimum, rules and legal frameworks to support them. Some policy reforms even require the government to expand its capacities. Government's role changes after reform, but government does not disappear. As Alfred Kahn, the father of airline deregulation, has argued, reform "should not be understood as synonymous with total government laissez-faire." Because government is inevitable after reform, politics is inescapable. Without the incentives for inefficient and inequitable policymaking that American politics often creates, general-interest reforms would be unnecessary. Without the creative coalition-building that the American political system makes possible, reforms could not be enacted. And without the economic and social transformations that American politics ideally permits, the reforms could not be sustained. While policy reform may be intended to promote economic goals, it is a political project all the way through.

While the political sustainability of general-interest reforms has been little-studied, this analysis joins a broader dialogue about the politics of policy stability and change, one to which scholars as diverse as Forrest Maltzman and Charles Shipan, Andrea Campbell, Suzanne Mettler, Jacob Hacker, Terry Moe, Karen Orren and Steven Skowronek, Christopher Berry, Barry Burden and William Howell, and Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones have made contributions. My analysis differs in subtle but important ways from these prior studies. In providing a detailed examination of how the rules, incentives, and norms embedded in reforms channel and constrain political dynamics over extended periods of time, my analysis departs from Maltzman and Shipan's important quantitative study of legal durability and why some major laws are more likely to be subsequently amended than others. An emphasis on how sustainable reforms not only heighten the political activity of citizens that make affirmative demands on government but also disempower and divide rent-seeking clientele groups distinguishes this account from the compelling positive feedback studies of Campbell and Mettler. With its emphasis that the sustainability of reforms turns as much on coalitional patterns and the play of uncoordinated market forces as on institutional changes, my analysis diverges from accounts that emphasize the politics of administrative structure (Moe) and shifts in formal authority (Orren and Skowronek). In contrast to studies (Berry, Burden, and Howell) arguing that policy durability hinges on the continuity of initial enacting coalitions, I argue that the most resilient reforms upset inherited coalitional patterns and stimulate the emergence of new vested interests and political alliances. Theoretically, my study of reform trajectories is related to Jacob S. Hacker's important work on how social policies evolve without the formal revision of laws, but my study investigates policy development across a broader set of arenas, providing an opportunity to sharpen our understanding of how policies reshape politics in different settings. While I discuss the distributional consequences of reforms, my analysis also places unusual emphasis on the efficiency implications of policy feedback, thereby linking market and political models of policy analysis. Finally, in its focus on what happens years or even decades after the passage of major policy shifts, the account differs from Baumgartner and Jones's influential punctuated equilibrium model.

JUST AN IMPLEMENTATION PROBLEM?

My analysis also differs from the traditional literature on policy implementation, which examines what can go wrong after laws are enacted. A major lesson of this literature is that implementation is politics by other means. As Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky argued, "continued skepticism [is warranted] when anyone suggests that inherent features of political life can be summarily abolished." This lesson is certainly relevant to the present inquiry, but there are at least two subtle but important differences between my approach and how most scholars have studied the implementation process.

First, implementation has been conceived as a process of "assembling numerous and diverse program elements," such as administrative and financial accountability mechanisms and regulatory clearances. While reform sustain-ability may also entail the building of a new "policy machine," as mentioned earlier, it usually involves a process of disassembly. Some extant policy system must be cleared away or at least contained before a reform can be safely established. Second, the implementation literature focuses mainly on the internal life of bureaus and the conditions under which statutory mandates are (or are not) translated into administrative actions. Classic implementation problems include bureaucratic resistance, tokenism, and delay. These problems can affect the durability of reforms. Yet reforms may crumble not because of anything bureaucrats do, but rather because of the actions (or inactions) of elected officials themselves.

In the language of rational choice modeling, the implementation literature focuses primarily on "slippages" between the preferences of political principals and the actions of their less-than-faithful bureaucratic agents. My analysis, in contrast, gives more attention to agency slippages between the citizenry (the ultimate principal in a democracy) and the government, and especially to what theorists refer to as the "commitment problem," meaning the inability of a sovereign government to bind itself or its successors. Today's leaders may change their minds about the direction of public policy and, even if they don't, they will eventually be replaced by other leaders who hold different views. The commitment problem may not be a concern for rank-and-file lawmakers, who arguably benefit from voting to enact general-interest reforms and then benefit themselves, again, at a later stage, by retracting the policies to serve other goals. But it is a serious problem for those policy entrepreneurs advocating reforms, who might stand to attract more political support if they could credibly demonstrate that reforms, once adopted, will endure. And it is an even bigger problem for the intended beneficiaries of reforms, especially diffuse constituencies who may be poorly placed to defend their policy gains over time. If the commitment problem could be better managed, society would be better off.

When the commitment to a general-interest reform unravels, three bad things happen. First, the substantive achievements of the reform are lost. Thus, all or most of the reformers' hard political work was for naught. This suggests it would have been better if the political system had focused its limited attention and information-processing capacities on some other problem. Second, the undoing of a reform undermines the stability that people need to plan for the future. There is a sense in which even a durable "bad" policy is better than a fragile "good" one. "The problem for America is that no one knows what will come next in terms of changes to the tax code. With Congress constantly twiddling with the tax controls, companies and individuals are unable to develop long-term strategies to build financial security. Even a bad tax law that is left in place is better than almost constant substantive changes that undermine investment strategies and business plans," states one professional association newsletter.

Finally, the unraveling of reforms causes ordinary Americans to lose faith in the ability of public leaders to solve public problems. When tax reformers today talk about cleaning up the tax code again, for example, voters think they've seen that movie before, and they know how it turns out. "Achieving [a new comprehensive tax reform] would have to overcome the cynicism that's developed, because the grand compromise of '86 lasted ... only a few years," lamented a tax expert who was one of the leading architects of the reform. Similar statements could be made about farm subsidy reform, campaign finance reform, health care reform, administrative reform, and so on. In sum, the unraveling of general-interest reforms harms the economy, squanders scarce political resources, and breeds public disillusionment with government.

A NEW POLITICS OF PUBLIC POLICY?

How sustainable have the major U.S. general-interest reforms of the past thirty or so years been? Why have some domestic reforms produced a remarkable shift in political dynamics while others have barely left a trace on the policy landscape? What lessons do the post-adoption experiences of major policy reforms offer about the capacities and incapacities of American national government?

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Reforms at Risk by Eric M. Patashnik
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables ix
Acknowledgments xi
Chapter 1: Introduction: General-Interest Policymaking and the Politics of Reform Sustainability 1
Chapter 2: Policy Reform as a Political Project 16
Chapter 3: Expert Ideas Meet Politics: Reforming the Tax Code 35
Chapter 4: Reforming the Agricultural Welfare State: The Mixed Case of the Freedom to Farm Act 55
Chapter 5: Reforming the American Welfare State: ERISA and the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act 72
Chapter 6: Uncle Sam Goes Shopping: Reinventing Government Procurement 91
Chapter 7: Unshackling an Unstable Industry: Airline Deregulation 110
Chapter 8: Making Pollution Control Pay: Emissions Trading for Acid Rain 136
Chapter 9: Conclusions: The Patterns and Paradoxes of Policy Reform 155
Notes 181
Index 229

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