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University of Chicago Press
Policy Dynamics / Edition 1

Policy Dynamics / Edition 1

by Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. JonesFrank R. Baumgartner
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While governmental policies and institutions may remain more or less the same for years, they can also change suddenly and unpredictably in response to new political agendas and crises. What causes stability or change in the political system? What role do political institutions play in this process?

To investigate these questions, Policy Dynamics draws on the most extensive data set yet compiled for public policy issues in the United States. Spanning the past half-century, these data make it possible to trace policies and legislation, public and media attention to them, and governmental decisions over time and across institutions. Some chapters analyze particular policy areas, such as health care, national security, and immigration, while others focus on institutional questions such as congressional procedures and agendas and the differing responses by Congress and the Supreme Court to new issues.

Policy Dynamics presents a radical vision of how the federal government evolves in response to new challenges-and the research tools that others may use to critique or extend that vision.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226039411
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2002
Edition description: 1
Pages: 371
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Frank R. Baumgartner is a professor in and the head of the political science department at The Pennsylvania State University.

Bryan D. Jones is the Donald R. Matthews Distinguished Professor in American Politics and director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of Washington. Together they wrote the award-winning Agendas and Instability in American Politics, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


Copyright © 2002 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03940-4

Chapter One


The American policy process is characterized by the dual and contrasting characteristics of stability and dramatic change. At times, government policies seem remarkably resistant to change, following standard operating procedures, working within norms of consensus among those involved, attracting little public attention, and deviating little from year to year. At other times, or in other areas of public policy, dramatic changes occur: New problems appear on the political agenda; crises require quick government response; new programs are created and old ones are terminated. The Medicare program was not created in 1965 in a wave of incrementalism, after all. Welfare reform was not just a marginal adjustment to past policies. The tobacco settlement, costing the tobacco industry hundreds of billions of dollars and putting an end to cigarette advertisements on billboards, does not reflect policy making by standard operating procedures.

Moreover, neither welfare reform nor the tobacco settlement would have occurred as they did without the operation of multiple venues for political action. In the case of welfare reform, the states took the lead. In the case of tobacco, most of the action resulted from the innovative legal theories promoted by Mississippi's attorney general. In each case, innovations and new ways of thinking about the issue were then copied by others so that large-scale national changes resulted from isolated local decisions.


Dramatic policy changes regularly occur in American politics, even if most issues most of the time are characterized by more routine developments. In this book, the chapter authors and we explore these dual characteristics of public policy, developing further evidence for the theory of punctuated equilibrium developed in our earlier work on policy change (Baumgartner and Jones 1993). This approach forces students of the policy process to integrate what have often been seen as unrelated, if not mutually antagonistic, phenomena: peaceful incrementalism and jarring change.

The chapters brought together here have in common a long-term perspective, typically looking at major issues of public policy or the institutions of government over a fifty-year period. They make use of common data sets tracing attention to public policy issues across that period. While each chapter explores a different area of public policy or a different aspect of the American institutional system, they address the issue of explaining both periods of dramatic change and those of relative stability. These are the signature characteristics of punctuated equilibrium, and the joint explanation of both contrasts sharply with the more common treatment of one to the exclusion of the other. Political scientists have traditionally focused either on the periods of rapid change (as in most studies of agenda setting and program creation) or on those of relative stability (as in most studies of policy subsystems, budgeting, implementation, or public policy more generally). One research tradition focuses on building models based on positive feedback processes; the other bases its studies on negative feedback models. In this introductory chapter, we lay out these contrasting views and explain the importance of integrating them.

This book is designed with an important theoretical ambition in mind. The study of public policy (and American politics more generally) has too often been divided into groups of scholars studying different parts of the same process. Many scholars focus their attention on explaining the smooth functioning of policy systems working within powerful and relatively stable institutional constraints. Such studies often show remarkable predictive powers and allow their authors to use sophisticated techniques of prediction and analysis. Other scholars often ask much broader questions and analyze issues over much longer periods of time or across many different institutional venues. Their work tends to have a more qualitative character, partly because the issues that they study are not clearly contained within the activities of any one institution. Students of institutions have been much more successful in modeling and in showing statistically significant predictions than have students of policy.

We want to show the importance of a combined view. Institutions, we will argue, are fundamentally endogenous to the policy process. That means that the policy process itself can alter the manner in which institutions function. The tradition in political science, however, is to think of institutions as exogenous. When we treat institutions as exogenous, we think of them as fixed and unchanging. They are causes, but not effects, of the policies that they are involved with. They structure, but are not structured by, public policy. Since the major institutions of government generally may remain in place for decades or longer, and since their organization, structure, and rules of participation tend to induce a certain type of outcome, scholars are often well served by treating them as relatively fixed, exogenous. (In other words, institutions generally have purposes, and political scientists are well served by an emphasis on noting what those purposes are. This is an assertion that readers should find utterly uncontroversial.) The view of institutions as exogenous factors, causes but not consequences of public policy, is not so much wrong as it is incomplete.

It is deceptively easy to model the stable functioning of an institution, treating it as fixed and exogenous, but doing so ignores some important questions. Where did the institution come from? What political forces conspired to make the institution be designed in one way rather than another? How capable is the institution of exerting its authority over rival institutions? How are policies made when several institutions share jurisdiction? Do institutions evolve over time in response to new issues and the actions of competing institutions? If we want to understand the ways in which government responds to important social problems, then we must look not only at the periods during which institutions produce policies in a smooth and consistent manner, but also at those periods when the institutions themselves are reorganized, at how institutions compete with each other for control over important public policies, and at how institutional practices evolve over time. In previous work (Baumgartner and Jones 1993), we argued that American public policy is an ever-changing mosaic, with some policies quietly being handled within policy subsystems and with little public attention, but with other policies being the subject of considerable public debate and institutional struggle. A complete understanding of the process requires attention to both types of process. The chapters that follow develop these ideas in greater detail.

If we succeed in our first goal, then by the end of this book readers will have a strong understanding that a complete view of American government and public policy must include a theory of institutional development as well as an understanding of institutionally induced equilibrium. Positive and negative feedback processes lead alternately to the creation, the destruction, and the evolution of the institutions of public policy. As new issues rise to and recede from the political agenda, as old issues come to be understood in new ways, and as the institutions of government compete with each other for control over important areas of policy, institutional structures are continuously revamped, modified, and altered. While a given institution may operate according to the logic of negative feedback for long periods of time, the entire government cannot be understood in these terms alone. Looking at the operations of government over the long term, as we do here, and considering both positive and negative feedback processes, leads quickly to the conclusion that institutional design should be endogenous to our theories of government. Taking it as fixed can be useful for some limited purposes, but a larger view requires attention to the creation, modification, and evolution of the structures of government themselves.

A second goal of the book is to introduce scholars, students, and others to some straightforward techniques of studying policy change. One of the truly great failings of the policy sciences has been the inability to produce reliable longitudinal studies. Many times, as we show in chapter 2, data sets used for policy analysis are simply not equivalent across time. We have collected a series of reliable policy indicators across time, and believe that the broadest possible availability of this and similar information will help us develop a more comprehensive understanding of how public policies are formulated and changed. Each of the chapters of this book reports some original research tracing the functioning of an institution of government or a particular policy issue over time. The methods used here may be applied more broadly to other policy arenas, especially since most of the data reported are publicly available through our web site (we explain this more fully in chapter 2 and in the appendices). We want to encourage the systematic and longitudinal study of public policy, and we have made available many of the resources necessary to do that for any number of issues. If we succeed in our second goal, then many readers of this book will challenge and extend our analyses using these new data sources.

In this chapter, we introduce the most important themes that are picked up in the subsequent chapters. We begin with a discussion of negative feedback processes. These are the mechanisms that induce stability and incrementalism in public policy, and they are fundamental to most models of bureaucratic behavior, the functioning of policy subsystems, concepts of interest-group pluralism, models of democratic gridlock, and to other prominent views of the policy process. Though rarely described in the terms that we use here, all these models have in common an adherence to a negative feedback model of the political process, one where shocks to the system are dampened, where pressures from one side lead to counterpressures from another side, and in general where self-corrective mechanisms keep the system on an even keel. We then turn our attention of positive feedback models of politics-models in which ideas of momentum, bandwagon effects, thresholds, and cascades play critical roles. In these processes, dramatic and unpredictable changes to public policy are more common, as in the literatures on issue definition, agenda setting, and policy entrepreneurship. Rather than self-correction, these models are characterized by self-reinforcing processes in which change in one case makes change in the next case more likely. Like a market in which consumers prefer to own a stock that is going up in value, initial increases can become self-perpetuating, at least for a time. Many political phenomena share characteristics of positive feedback mechanisms, as for example when political leaders sense that the public, or an important segment of it, is increasingly concerned with an issue such as prescription drug coverage. The more the leaders talk about the issue, the more the public may be concerned with it, and the cycle can last for quite some time. In sum, the political system shows important characteristics of both negative and positive feedback processes, though the two do not operate at the same time for the same issue.

A complete view of the political system must include both positive and negative feedback processes because the events that make one of them possible also make the other one inevitable. Therefore any theory that focuses on one must also make room for the other. Fundamental to the differences between positive and negative feedback systems in public policy are the roles and structures of institutions. We review the important role of institutional design in promoting negative feedback processes, but also in making inevitable certain periods of institutional redesign, and therefore positive feedback processes as well. Institutions react to the changing nature of the issues that they are called upon to deal with. Sometimes institutional change is rapid and dramatic, as when new institutions are created or redesigned; at other times issues and institutions coevolve in a more gradual manner. That is, institutional structures can evolve slowly over time in reaction to the changing nature of the issues that they face. We discuss these institutional dynamics in some detail in this chapter, and several subsequent chapters then pick up these themes as well.

Many theories of politics leave no room for institutional design or change. Others have no room for the steady functioning of relatively stable systems of negative feedback. Rarely do theories of politics allow for both; we think that any complete theoretical perspective must necessarily allow for both the routine functioning of issues as they are processed by the specialized institutions of government that have been built up around them as well as for the exceptional periods when institutions themselves are created, ripped apart, or dramatically altered in the face of political mobilizations, altered understandings of underlying issues, or other factors. So we first want to encourage a broader view of the functioning of the political system and its institutional design.

A second goal of our book, as stated above, is to illustrate the uses of the many data sets we have collected in recent years. The chapters that follow give thorough descriptions of our data and illustrate how they can be used. Though this book has thirteen chapters and may seem to cover a lot of ground, it barely scratches the surface in terms of the analytical uses to which our new data sources can be put. We hope that some of our readers will be intrigued enough by what they see to follow up with studies of their own. These may be designed to explore issue areas or institutions not covered here, or they may be designed to challenge the analyses presented here. In any case, the essays included in this volume do not constitute a full test or demonstration of the theoretical ideas we want to explore. More studies-a great number of them-are necessary to do that.

American politics changed greatly in the second half of the twentieth century. During the early period covered by our data sets, that is, just after demobilizing From World War II, our government had a limited role in the economy and virtually no role in the health care system, had placed very little emphasis on public health or the environment, and had instituted no interstate highways or serious national transportation policies, no national energy policies, no space program or National Institutes of Health, and little in the way of antidiscrimination legislation. Within forty years, a new situation had evolved: not only was government bigger in absolute terms but, perhaps more importantly, it was involved in a great many more activities. Though many have noted the growth in government, few have explored the ways in which this growth has affected the nature and functioning of the government itself. Many seem to expect governmental leaders now to behave in ways reminiscent of how they worked when government was much simpler. We believe that this would be inappropriate if it were not impossible. We hope that this book will provide some initial glimpses into these wide-ranging changes, that it will prompt others to study these issues as we continue to do so ourselves, and that the combined impact of all these further studies will be an enhanced and more complete understanding of the nature of our democracy.


A negative feedback system includes a homeostatic process or a self-correcting mechanism. Just as a thermostat adjusts to falling temperatures by putting out more heat, homeostatic devices work to maintain stability. Whatever the direction of the outside force, the homeostatic device operates in the opposite way; the result is to maintain steady outputs in the face of changing external pressures. The key element of any negative feedback system is simply that the system reacts to counterbalance, rather than reinforce, any changes coming in from the environment.


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Table of Contents

List of Contributors
Part One: Theoretical Beginnings
1 Positive and Negative Feedback in Politics
Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones
2 Studying Policy Dynamics
Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. Jones, and John D. Wilkerson
Part Two: Multidimensionality and Punctuated Equilibrium in Public Policy
3 The Logic of Positive Feedback: Telecommunications Policy through the Creation, Maintenance, and Destruction of a Regulated Monopoly
Michael C. MacLeod
4 The Multiple and Changing Goals of Immigration Reform: A Comparison of House and Senate Activity, 19471993
Valerie F. Hunt
5 Multiple Topics, Multiple Targets, Multiple Goals, and Multiple Decision Makers: Congressional Consideration of Comprehensive Health Care Reform
John W. Hardin
6 The Multiple Goals of Science and Technology Policy
T. Jens Feeley
7 The Changing Focus of National Security Policy
James L. True
Part Three: The Coevolution of the Issues and Structures of American Politics
8 The Changing Public Agenda over the Postwar Period
Jeffery C. Talbert and Matthew Potoski
9 Omnibus Legislation: An Institutional Reaction to the Rise of New Issues
Glen S. Krutz
10 New Issues, New Members: Committee Composition and the Transformation of Issue Agendas on the House Banking and Public Works Committees
E. Scott Adler
11 Using Bills and Hearings to Trace Attention in Congress: Policy Windows in Health Care Legislating
John D. Wilkerson, T. Jens Feeley, Nicole S. Schiereck, and Christina Sue
12 The Changing Agendas of Congress and the Supreme Court
Frank R. Baumgartner and Jamie K. Gold
Part Four: Conclusions
13 Punctuations, Ideas, and Public Policy
Bryan D. Jones and Frank R. Baumgartner

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