Policy gridlock rocked Washington, DC, in the fall of 2013 as policy makers shut down the government because they could not come to an agreement regarding the federal budget and the Affordable Care Act. This situation occurred because of the nature of our government, our system of checks and balances, and the array of policy actors involved in policy making. Government, at all levels, has grown due to westward expansion, population increases, greater regulation of business, expanded worldwide influence, and the expectation by the public for government involvement in problems. The expanded government at all levels explains why the United States practices incremental policy making by addressing policy concerns one small piece at a time.
Federalism is a form of shared authority between state and federal governments, established by the 10th amendment to the Constitution. Historically, dual federalism set up distinct roles for states and the federal government to play, whereas, recently, the cooperative federalism model involves an interplay of federal and state relations. Much of the cooperation was a result of block grants, with which states can decide how to spend the money, or categorical grants, with which states have discretion to spend money for a specific purpose or category of spending. The federal government sometimes requires states to implement policies without providing funding to support the effort, referred to as unfunded mandates. Recent years have seen growing decentralization of authority to states, a situation requiring strong policy capacity, or the ability to develop innovative and effective policy solutions. Because of differences in the history and culture, population, natural resources, economies, and affluence of states, there is a wide variety in the policies enacted at the state level, leading some to question the equity of decentralized policy making.
Government policy actors play key roles in developing public policies. Separation of powers is part of the federal government structure, in which three branches of government share responsibility for various aspects of policy making. First, The legislative branch enacts new laws and is a bicameral, or two-house, Congress consisting of the House of Representatives (serving 2-year terms) and the Senate (serving 6-year terms). Members of the Senate can filibuster, or talk for an extended time to prevent passage of legislation. Second, the executive branch (including president, vice president, White House staff, and federal bureaucracy) carries out the laws made by Congress. The Executive Office of the President consists of agencies that assist the president in developing and implementing public policy. Fifteen cabinet-level departments are managed by appointed secretaries to work with federal policies in defined areas. Independent executive agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency) manage to define policy areas, while independent regulatory commissions are responsible for regulating certain economic industries. Third, the judicial branch reactively interprets policy decisions of the other branches and does not proactively create policy. The federal judiciary is composed of the Supreme Court, 13 circuit courts of appeals, and 94 federal district courts. Courts have the final say on what laws and policies mean, and, often, courts issue decisions based on prior court decisions, or precedents.
Informal policy actors also play key roles in developing public policies. The public weighs on policy by exercising responsibilities as citizens to vote, but public opinion puts pressures on lawmakers to respond. The number and influence of organized interest groups has increased dramatically; these groups organize public opinion and inform lawmakers by producing research and by lobbying, through which they educate elected officials about a desired proposal or position. Aside from the public and interest groups, another informal policy actor involves less formal influence by subgovernments or issue networks. These highly specialized networks of experts operate with little public awareness and develop their own distinctive ways of communication to address policy issues.
This chapter explores the government and informal policy actors at work constructing policy in the United States. Policy capacity must be improved in order to solve complex and growing world problems such as worldwide terrorism, economic concerns, and climate change. New ways to encourage citizen involvement will be important to improving our ability to address these problems.