Lecture 07: Dynamics of Influence in the US
Poli 320B 2012
Dynamics of influence in the US: Nature of US Institutions
1. The influence of the president is limited and variable.
-- Presidential success on legislation is mostly a matter of the
composition of Congress: whether members agree with his policies.
NOT MUCH ability for presidents to change of minds in Congress.
Statistical evidence: presidential success rates on bills are explained by
party and ideological strength in Congress. No evidence of differences in
frequency of success related to presidential skill or effort.
-- Public opinion leadership may be of some importance—mixed
evidence. Usually overrated: Presidents don’t move the public very
much. Examples: Clinton, Obama health care reform. Many speeches,
but public support declines.
-- Presidents may not control administrative agencies completely.
Congress and interest groups are rivals of the president.
-- BUT: The president has nearly unilateral power in some areas
(e.g. initial commitment of troops abroad), not others. There are gray
areas that pres can exploit: E.g., Obama gives states “waivers” on
2. The influence of the congressional parties over individual members is
limited and variable. Currently very high by US standards; but still less
than Canadian. Does a party have a collective strategy on legislation?
Sort of—leaders have a preferred strategy. But individuals have
considerable autonomy. 3. Decentralized units are powerful: committees (vs whole Congress)
and agencies (vs president). A phenomenon of “iron triangles”: alliance
of 1) agency, 2) Cong committees with jurisdiction, and 3) interest
groups affected by the policy. Result is strong influence of narrow
interests. E.g, Dept of Agriculture; Agriculture Committees; and Farm
Groups. They agree on programs to subsidize farmers.
4. Policies that involve the states (e.g., Medicaid, education) are very
hard to change. Great complexity because any bill has different effects
in different states, due to existing policy differences.
5. Constituencies (interest groups, public opinion) may have greater
power than other systems—because Congress members are not held
responsible for the results.
[Read Malloy and Quirk on how the system performs, compared with
Canadian Parliamentary system.]
Note the example of Canada's budget cuts, mid 1990s.
The turnaround began with Mr. Chrétien’s arrival as prime minister in
November, 1993, when his Liberal Party – in some ways Canada’s
equivalent of the Democrats in the U.S. – swept to victory with a strong
majority. The new government took one look at the dreadful state of the
books and decided to act.
“I said to myself, I will do it. I might be prime minister for only one term,
but I will do it,” Mr. Chrétien said. Could this happen in the US? ]Why, why not? (See also later
Discuss now. Come back later.
Exam here Tuesday. Will use scantron forms. Bring No. 2 pencils.
Discuss: Agreement reached on the continuing resolution (reopen
government) and increasing the debt limit.
How to analyze the effect of institutions on the performance of
Discuss two dimensions of performance:
I. Ideological direction and change.
How far policy will lie to left or right? And, how much potential for
dramatic change—e.g. adoption of major new programs. Or opposite:
major cuts in programs?
The US political system is generally somewhat prone to delay, or
gridlock—inability to act. And when it does act, it generally results in
moderate policies—and makes incremental changes. Why? Not because of president: ideology of president can change
sharply—e.g., Clinton, to Bush, to Obama. Barrier to dramatic change is
need for action by Congress. Parties have only modest discipline—hence
need to gain support from moderate members results in moderate
policies. In last 10 years, the main barrier to change is more frequent
filibustering in Senate—need for 60 votes (of 100).
However, this performance depends on the state of parties, esp. a)