Enforcing the JFK Act - A Basic Political Primer
How Government Works – Getting it to Work for
Beyond Legislation: Implementing the Law
For every page of federal laws there are dozens of pages of regulations and administrative interpretations of the law. For every legislator (every member of Congress or state legislature) there are thousands of bureaucrats busily writing regulations and implementing the laws those legislators pass.
The Source of the Greatest Power in Government – Bureaucrats
These bureaucrats toil in the executive or administrative branch of government and are in many ways the source of the greatest power in any government. It is no surprise, therefore, that issue advocates devote considerable attention to influencing and persuading them. But what do bureaucrats do? They, and the agencies and departments and offices for which they work, interpret, enforce, and administer the law.
The thousand daily decisions bureaucrats make administering laws can cause issue advocates more consternation – and require more time and attention – than the legislative process. Hard-fought legislative success can turn to pyrrhic victories in the hands of an unfriendly or unresponsive bureaucracy. Indeed, issue advocates who win legislative battles barely have time to pop the champagne corks before they must turn their attention to how the law, for which they fought so hard, will be implemented. Or those who thought they had tamed the legislative process may learn that the executive branch has implemented policy changes that accomplish the goals they sought to avoid.
As one commentator observed: “Nothing in law ever seems finally settled because there is always one more step in the process where both winners and losers may try to negotiate different terms.”
Administrative discretion may be broad, but it is far from absolute. First, administrative action is limited to the authority afforded the agency by the legislative branch. By contrast, Congress is limited in its lawmaking activities only by the Constitution.
Second, agencies afford the public opportunities to make their views known to, and considered by, the agency. Congressional committees may choose to hold public hearings on legislation, but they need not do so, and they are free to ignore all the witnesses and all the evidence presented to them.
Third, agency action, as we saw in the last section, can be reviewed by the courts to ensure the actions comply with all applicable laws and procedures. When Congress passes a law, it can be challenged in court only on the grounds that it violates the Constitution.
The Administrative Procedures Act
The main vehicle to control agency discretion at the federal level is the Administrative Procedures Act. The law requires agencies to make most decisions in the open and to afford the public meaningful opportunities to comment on proposed agency actions. It also allows those who disagree with the agency decisions to ask courts to invalidate them if they are not in accordance with applicable law and procedure or if they are not solidly grounded on the facts and the law.
These limitations on administrative discretion reflect the fact that agencies can exercise their discretionary powers by issuing rules or regulations. These ‘minilaws’ codify administrative interpretations and establish clear guidelines for bureaucrats and the public.
The broad policy discretion afforded bureaucrats provides issue advocates good reasons to attempt to influence how laws are enforced and administered. And the processes of administrative decision making – the requirement that, for the most part, it be open to the public and subject to judicial review – provide advocates important tools to accomplish that goal,
Legal Action – Last Resort
The courts are most often the last resort of those who seek to influence public policy. Litigation is costly and time-consuming, appeals can drag on for years, and tangible results are often hard to achieve.
Yet, the federal and state courts provide critical outlets – safety valves – for issue advocates who are unable to get a full and fair hearing before the administrative or legislative branch of government.
The doors of the courthouse are open to all. Legislatures are accountable only to the electorate and only at the ballot box. Bureaucracies can be slow and unresponsive. But advocates who seek redress in the courts are guaranteed a hearing by an impartial arbiter who will decide a case on its merits.
Would public support for sending American troops pass what Senator John Glenn termed the ‘Dover test’? Dover Air Force Base in Delaware would be the point of return for the bodies of American troops who died on foreign soil. Would American’s, who initially supported sending troops, maintain their support after American soldiers died? How reliable were polls that showed people supporting these actions? No American politician wanted to rely on poorly formed public opinion that did not recognize and accept that Americans might die in Somalia or Haiti. The quality and reliability of the public’s opinion mattered.
Finding Words that Work: Just Free the Files
Words and symbols can shape public attitudes about issues. The right ones can position an issue so that it favorably resonates with prevailing public concerns and attracts a broad and deep base of diverse supporters.
Th e Nature of Coalitions
A coalition is an alliance, usually limited in time and purpose, between organizations with different agendas, working together for a common policy advocacy goal.
The term coalition encompasses a great diversity of alliances formed to advance a shared public policy goal. Coalitions can be formal or informal, permanent or temporary.
Coalitions can unite diverse civil rights or environmental groups as they formulate and advance complex, long-term agendas. Or they can provide a mechanism to coordinate short-term activities, such as opposing a Supreme Court nomination…or supporting the balanced budge amendments to the Constitution.
Networks often precede coalitions, just as individuals or organizations sharing information and common concerns may gradually coalesce into an association or organization – an interest group – designed to influence policy.
Coalition – Alliance of Orgs
A coalition is an alliance between organizations, each of which brings its own agenda and decision-making processes to the coalition table. Since coalition members are organizations, not individuals, they do not have the same freedom of movement that individuals have. Interest groups that join coalitions must be sure that the coalition shares the fundamental goals of the organization and its members.
Coalitions are at the mercy of their members and can achieve only what the
members permit them to achieve. Their only resources-people and money – are those that members provide.
Large, permanent coalitions, such as trade associations, have permanent staff, office space, and resources, all dedicated to achieving the coalition’s goals. Member organizations pay substantial dues to support the coalition and its infrastructure.
But most coalitions are ad hoc, voluntary assemblages of organizations, with little power to compel the member organizations to commit time and resources to the coalition or to fulfill their coalition commitments. They are usually staffed by ‘volunteers’ from the member organizations, some of whom may even be detailed to work exclusively on coalition projects.
All coalitions are composed of different organizations with different agendas working together and there are numerous ways to organize and manage coalitions. The best coalitions are flexible enough to adapt to their members’ needs and the common goal that has brought them together.
Coalitions begin with organizations whose issue agendas largely overlap. The initial recruitment process locates those whose agendas, while different, still show substantial areas of agreement.
Finally, coalitions attempt to recruit organizations whose agendas rarely overlap with those of core coalition members. In some cases, core coalition members may even try to persuade other organizations to stretch their issue agendas to include the coalition’s issue.
Why would coalitions recruit so widely for allies, even going so far as to include organizations with whom they have never worked on any issue?
Just imagine the reaction of a legislator who opens his office door only to find lobbyists on both sides of an issue working together on another issue. ‘Unlikely alliances’ make decision makers and the public sit up and take notice: If people who disagree on so many things agree on this issue, then maybe there’s some merit in their position.
From: A Citizen’s Guide To Politics In America – How the System Works & How to Work the System, by Barry R. Rubin (M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York/London; 1997-2000)