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How policymakers ignore the public's priorities

- March 24, 2014

President Obama comforts a father of a Newtown, Conn., shooting victim at a White House news conference after gun-control legislation failed to move through the Senate. (Jacquelyn Martin/ AP)
This is a guest post by Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossmann.  He will be guest-blogging this week about his new book, “Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change Since 1945.”
If any event stood a chance to galvanize policymakers by focusing public opinion and media coverage, the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School had all the hallmarks. The horrific killing of 26 people included many young children and alarmed the public, the media, and policymakers across partisan and ideological lines.
Normally cautious scholars saw the potential for significant policy change. Media coverage of gun control remained heightened for much longer than other shootings. The public saw the shooting as a sign of a broader crisis. And the policy image was jarringly reframed. President Obama repeatedly proposed new policies while badgering and scolding Congress for inaction. Proposed bills had overwhelming public support and gathered legislative momentum—but little came to pass.
Political scientists have long seen events, public opinion and media coverage as critical factors in setting the agenda for policymakers. These factors do not make policy change inevitable, but they allegedly guide policymakers to address particular problems or issues.
In my new book, “Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change Since 1945,” I argue that these factors are overblown.  It is far less critical that policymakers agree on an agenda than that they compromise on a specific proposal for policy change. These compromises enable policy change, whether an issue is at the center of the agenda or well out of public view. Significant policy proposals that generate minimal objection can be enacted without much attention. Sustained media coverage and public concern usually fail to adjust internal coalition building.
My study combines the data goldmine of the Policy Agendas Project with my own content analysis of 268 scholarly narratives of policy history since 1945. I track significant domestic policy changes identified in these policy histories; most policy changes were laws passed by Congress, but some were executive orders, agency rules, or court decisions. I analyze whether any branch of government changes policy more often when an issue is at the center of the public or media agenda.
I found minimal correlations between the public agenda and significant policy changes. When the American public considers an issue the most important problem facing the country, it is no more likely to result in significant new laws, executive orders or agency rules, or court decisions that change policy. When the media focus on an issue more frequently, it is similarly unrelated to whether policymakers decide to act.
Even though there is no systematic relationship, there are examples of important laws passed after focusing events or public mobilization. But according to policy historians, these events are less frequent than we might expect. The table below summarizes historians’ judgments regarding the factors that played a role in the 790 significant domestic policy changes that they identified. In explaining half of significant policy changes, no policy historian credited any factor related to public opinion (including elections), media coverage, or events. Where they did credit the public, media, or events for pressing policymakers toward action, they also usually credited critical compromises or coalitions within government institutions. Most stories of policymaking success are insider stories.
The agenda setting factors cited most often were ongoing wars and recessions, not archetypal focusing events like school shootings. This table by no means covers all of the reasons that public policy changes. Even when historians credited the public or media with policy change, for instance, they also usually cited interest groups. The reverse was not true: most policy changes credited to interest groups involved no input from the public or media. (The 120 enactments that were not explained by institutional bargaining or agenda setting usually involved interest groups, research, or prior policy deadlines.)
The Obama administration’s policy successes are also instructive. Take the Affordable Care Act and a lesser-known policy change signed at the same time: student loan reform. Though the public preferred a focus on the great recession, health care was at least at the center of the legislative agenda for 2009 (as it had been for four previous unsuccessful presidents). Yet student loan reform was aided by staying under the public radar. In both cases, deals struck in Congress and the White House, rather than changes in the public agenda, brought policy change. The same could not be said of gun control, where policymakers failed to forge agreement even in the face of great tragedy and heightened attention.
And that is no aberration: insular policymaking is the norm in Washington.