How Is The Agenda Set?

How do Issues Get to the Agenda?

If everyone's problem cannot be assigned to the public policy agenda, how does any particular item receive such attention? Agenda-setting raises such fundamental political questions as:

Let us start by clarifying our language. Consider these terms: private problem, issue, and agenda item. Here, we define a problem as a situation in which the perception of a particular condition does not meet the expectations of some group. That is, somebody perceives that something is amiss, not functioning properly, even if that something cannot be adequately specified or explained. The initial definition of the problem should be regarded as only hypothetical and should be subject to scrutiny. It should not be presumed that any particular claim is valid or legitimate as a proper agenda item. Ulterior motives or self-interest may be at play.

Unfortunately, much distortion enters the policy process through perception, expectations, and definition. Indeed, lobbying, control of media corporations, and outright attempts to mislead the public could either raise a private issue for public assistance or suppress a publicly valid issue to prevent discussion or attention. The issue of WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, was proven false but yet became the pretense for a historic public policy, the war in Iraq.

Another example is controversy surrounding nuclear power. Polls show that the public regards nuclear reactor accidents as carrying a greater likelihood of cause of death than automobile travel, much to the chagrin of the nuclear power industry. On the other hand, few realize the generous subsidy the nuclear power industry is granted in the fuel cycle: from material processing, to insurance regulation, to nuclear waste disposal. The emotionally charged nuclear power issue is waged under a cloud of misinformation and outright distortion. Even the discontinued Atomic Energy Commission made it an official, but undisclosed policy, to misinform and baffle the public, thereby rendering citizens as incapable of properly perceiving the issue of nuclear power and narrowing the scope of political debate.

The sociologist C. Wright Mills argues that the ability to transform a personal grievance into a public problem requires what he calls "the sociological imagination." That is, personal grievances may languish and never become subject to public discourse until analysis is brought to bear. Most of the time, he suggests, individual hurt remains hidden, even though large groups of individuals may be so inflicted. We should not take it for granted that concealed difficulties automatically become perceived widely as problems or that, if they are, the definition given the problem adequately captures the causes and effects.

An example of this is the CBS broadcast of You Are There which brought to national attention the brutal conditions of migrant agricultural workers. These people suffered in silence for many years, but the media brought to light conditions largely perceived as unacceptable within a generally affluent society. No doubt that the definition of the problem will differ greatly if the editor asked a large grower whose profit margin is slim and whose industry is competitive or if the editor asked Caesar Chavez, a labor leader who organized farm workers in California. Such problem identification and definition calls into question how we view society and how we value social conditions. These are ideologically charged perceptions and will often be contested vigorously.

Problem identification at the outset is an essential step in going from a private to a public matter. Much has been said about the disintegration of the American family. Family values has become a slogan in political campaigns, but the meaning of this catch term remains vague and elastic. To some, this reflected sordid behavior and unwholesome values requiring that individuals had to be openly scolded. In the 1992 presidential election, Vice-President Danforth Quayle spoke out against a popular television show for depicting a woman bearing a child out of wedlock. Others see the presumed problem of the family quite differently. Marge Roukema, a Republican Congressional Representative from New Jersey, spoke out against the leaders of her party in her effort to champion family leave legislation, which was vetoed by the same administration which raised the family values issue. To some, the stress on the family, particularly those living in poverty, reveals underlying economic and social problems such as massive unemployment and widespread discrimination against women and blacks. How one identifies the problem is basic to how solutions, if any, might be formulated later in the policy process.

Even before the problem becomes an adopted agenda item, the controversy ensues. An open political process allows for debate, and you can count on it. Rarely do public policy agenda items fail to generate disagreements even before official discussion. The term issue should replace the more neutral term used so far, agenda item. We have already defined the term issue as a matter of public importance which is in dispute. How do problems, once identified, become public in nature? A simple criterion is that the problem, no matter how defined, is selected as an agenda item for some public body. There are no guarantee that private grievances turn into public issues even when their scope, scale, of intensity increases. The massive oil spill at Valdez in 1990 received much national attention, but President Bush and the oil industry rushed to show the public that the clean-up effort was underway. The oil industry, particularly the Exxon company, took great lengths to convince the public that the firm was a responsible corporate citizen which happened to have an unfortunate accident. The Bush administration denied that the event was cause for public policy action such as double-hulled tankers or a halt in drilling. The matter soon slipped from the agenda.

If a problem does not become an agenda item for some public body, it cannot even enter the policy cycle. We will discuss below some avenues by which public policy problems are initiated, but, for now, suffice it so say that problems go public when they turn into agenda items for some policy making body, such as a legislature (your local City Council or the U.S. House of Representatives) or an administrative agency (the Department of Energy or your local Health Department). Getting an issue or a problem to be addressed means getting it on the appropriate agenda.

Do some groups in society appear to enjoy greater access to the policy agenda? There is obviously a selection process, or filter, at work in agenda determination. Most of what can be seen as problems fails to make it to the public agenda. The Valdez oil spill took center stage for a while on the evening news, but did not receive the sustained policy attention which the 1969 oil spill at Santa Barbara, which was far smaller in environmental damage and magnitude of the spill. The latter triggered the discussion which led to the landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The former did not even set back drilling in the state of Alaska.

Finally, realize that agendas are ephemeral, quickly passing. They are soon stale and much subsequent action depends on timing. Agendas are notoriously subject to sudden and unanticipated disruption through crises, which may displace other issues. Related issues may expand and preclude an issue which moves to the back-burner.

Summary: So far, we have said that gaining access to the agenda requires this transition:

  1. In the social system, perceived reality does not match expectations and a grievance in need of governmental remedy is felt;

  2. A grievance of a constituency is defined as a problem and crystallizes as a public issue, a matter in dispute;

  3. The issue is placed as an agenda item on an institutional calendar as a legitimate demand from a constituency, a critical stage in the unfolding of public policy;

  4. By this time, the issue has already been cast, given definition and scope, and is already on the way to formulation, the next stage of the policy process.

How Do Groups Gain Access to the Policy Agenda

A tax revolt has swept the nation. George H.W. Bush made the aversion to taxation a major theme of the 1988 presidential election: "Read my lips. No new taxes." He followed in the footsteps of his former boss, President Ronald Reagan. The tax revolt started in 1977 in California and quickly spread. The person who started this popular movement was Howard A. Jarvis, who organized a California referendum initiative called Proposition 13. Reagan jumped on Jarviz's bandwagon as a spokesperson for the movement.

Ralph Nader, a crusading public-interest attorney, wrote an influential book about the safety of General Motors automobiles, Unsafe At Any Speed, and in the process of mounting a campaign against a corporate giant founded the consumer movement.

Cesar Chavez came to prominence by organizing a consumer boycott of lettuce and grapes produced in the fields of California's Central Valley. Although representing a small group of pickers who had virtually no political resources, Chavez translated the problem of the migrant workers into a civil rights issue. carried his fight to urban areas throughout the country, and won many concessions for his union and legislation protecting his constituents.

Jarvis, Nader, and Chavez are examples of policy champions, individual persons who initiate and sustain a particular policy crusade. The champions are catalysts and mobilizers. They become identified with the movement founded on an idea whose time has come. Successful policy champions define a problem, make it an issue, and get it to the public agenda. They are typically tenacious, good communicators, and educators of the public to the advantages of the policy they advocate. They need a strong case that resonates clearly with the public.

Policy champions can work from inside government. Claude Pepper, who died in 1989, long championed legislation for the senior citizens of America. The late Paul Rogers, a Democratic Congressman from Florida, championed clean air regulation. Former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia championed the build-up of conventional arms which proved effective in the first Gulf War. Policy champions working inside the system are invaluable allies of advocates who work from outside. Warren Rudman, who recently retired as Senator from New Hampshire, continues to monitor fiscal policy, championing a balanced budget through The Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog he co-founded with liberal Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts.

The agenda can be interrupted by crisis, an abrupt, significant, and unexpected change in events which calls attention to a particular event. The terrorist attack of 9/11/2001 provides the epitome of crisis. The BP oil spill rupture in the Gulf Of Mexico, coming right after President Barack Obama announced a policy of relaxing regulations on coastal drilling, turned the whole agenda item on its head.

Crises are not new, of course. The Watergate scandal pushed much of Washington's business onto the back burner as the political process turned its attention to a Constitutional crisis. The hostage taking in Iran in 1977 disrupted the presidency of Jimmy Carter, preventing him from taking charge of other issues. such as the economy. The oil embargo by the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) moved energy policy from the institutional agenda favored by the oil companies and onto the front burner as a systemic or macro agenda item. Only in such an open environment could the windfall profit tax be entertained seriously. Such a policy could never be initiated so long as the oil companies could control the institutional agenda.

Other events can become policy triggers. The oil spill at Santa Barbara in 1969 caught national attention and immediately preceded President Nixon's placing a broad environmental initiative on the Congressional agenda. What followed was a series of landmark environmental laws, including the National Environmental Protection Act. The Santa Barbara spill was not a national crisis, at best it was a regional issue. President Nixon, however, appeared to chose to push his environmental agenda with the spill as a pretext. In contrast, President Bush did not go to the scene of the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, but sought to dampen the issue so that it would not trigger a change in energy policy which might upset the institutional agenda favored by the oil companies.

The political scientist Charles O. Jones regards access to the policy agenda as dependent on six factors related to the aggregation of citizens and the formation of groups :

  1. The sheer number of citizens effected: Senior citizens make their demands stick, partly as a result of their sheer population size and propensity to participate in elections. Minorities, by definition, must rely on other factors then sheer numbers to pursue their interests.

  2. The extent to which constituents are organized: The National Rifle Association (NRA) has enjoyed a great deal of clout in obstructing gun control legislation, even though 87% of the American public favors greater regulation of handguns. Trade associations such as the American Medical Association, the American Petroleum Institute, and labor unions concentrate and direct a wide variety of activities designed to influence the public policy agenda.

  3. The resources available: Political action committees (PACs) contribute vast sums to political campaigns and are widely perceived as enjoying greater access to the institutional agenda as a result. In 1989-1990, PACs donated over 150 million dollars to Congressional elections. The American Petroleum Association guards its monopoly on geological data which is essential in making energy policy, displaying how information can be wielded as a powerful resource.

  4. Representation: This is the means to access. Linking citizens and their problems with governmental processes. Tobacco companies look to Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, a major tobacco growing region, to protect such interests as keeping cigarette-smoking from being defined as a public health issue. In the period 1984 to 1991, Helms raised, and spent over 17 million dollars. Cuban Americans promote their specific foreign policy interests through the Representative from Florida's 18th Congressional District, Ileana Roe-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba.

  5. The sheer intensity with which they vivify their issue and the dedication they bring to their advocacy. The NRA displays great tenacity in keeping gun control off the agenda. Environmentalists often respond with sustained vigor even when unable to muster great numbers of citizens or bring to bear large amounts of resources.

  6. The skill and savvy they muster to promote or defend their interests. Experience gained by past participation and political intelligence are prerequisites here. The organizations representing major vested interests hire only the most experienced and capable lobbyists. Over 3,000 former officials of the Reagan administration were registered foreign agents, translating their on-the-job training into contracts.

Who Sets the Policy Agenda?

Which institutions and groups appear to enjoy the greatest access to agenda setting? How? Recall that the ability to set the agenda is a formidable, perhaps the supreme, instrument of power. This discussion reviews some of the major players in the policy game then examines some of the broader avenues of popular participation by which citizens can initiate public policy.

Our survey must be brief. Each core institution needs a full course to examine in sufficient detail. Still, an introduction to public policy in American requires at least a general discussion of the major actors in policy making. Their influence begins with agenda setting. our attention here focuses on the President, the principal initiator of the national agenda. Congress will get closer scrutiny under the chapter on policy formulation. for they must ratify most policy proposals. Interest groups and executive agencies form collaborative relations with Congress, and they, too, will undergo closer examination in the next chapter.

The President's Agenda

In the United States, the President alone enjoys the paramount advantage of defining the policy direction for the nation. The initiative is his. The President must keep control of the front-burner, the macro or systemic agenda. This is the avenue to accomplish his goals and to preclude others from taking away the initiative. At the state and local levels, the chief elected executive officials -- governors and mayors -- possess similar institutional roles which facilitate, even demand, choices over the agenda. But none enjoy the scope of powers of the President over the macro, or systemic, agenda.

The primacy of the President in policy determination carries legitimacy which no one else can claim. After all, he waged a wearying campaign which brought him to every state, endured microscopic scrutiny by the media and the opposition. And ultimately, he prevailed. Having triumphed, he can assert a mandate from all the voters. The election confirms his vision for the nation. The intense media coverage allows the president to communicate his agenda.

Critics retort that modern Presidential elections have been diminished by the mass-marketing of a glossy facsimile of a real person, abject failure to discuss issues, the expenditure of huge amounts of other peoples' money (raising the issue of who has rented access), and media hype built around vapid sound bites. In recent elections, nearly half of the electorate chose not vote. But, such criticism carries little weight after victory has been achieved.

Since the Great Depression, the American people have come to expect activist Presidencies -- no candidate campaigns on a passive agenda. Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan stand out as Presidents who installed new policy directions. They identified a policy thrust, mobilized support, formulated a plan, and implemented a major overhaul in the thrust of American public policy. Even Kennedy, who oversaw few legislative initiatives in his abbreviated term, identified clearly a national priority: Put an American on the moon within a decade.

The President needs to do so. In the first term of a Presidency, there are campaign promises to keep, or at least acknowledge. The President knows that the political opponent will find fault in the next campaign. A candidate who vows to be, say, the Environmental President (George H.W. Bush), or the Education President (George W. Bush), or the President to reform the health system (Bill Clinton), can expect to be judged on results. Promises that might have been glib ploys to garner votes will soon be evaluated. Some of these may be intractable, like crime and poverty, or largely out of direct control, like the state of the economy. Still, as Harry Truman asserted: The buck stops here.

The president rules the foreign policy process, although this has been reined in since the Viet Nam War. Nixon, for example, virtually hopped on Air Force One and in one fell swoop reversed American policy toward China. George W. Bush prepared the American public for a war in Iraq, despite his controverted assertions.

Much has been made of the boundless power of the Imperial Presidency, but limitations should be appreciated. To raise an issue, to get legislative approval, to implement programs, then to show results requires political dexterity, some lucky breaks, enormous energy, broad support, and the absence of distractions and crises from afar. A thriving economy and a buoyant national mood also help.

To be successful, a newly elected President must identify and communicate his policy agenda early, clearly, and boldly. The four-year term presents a ticking clock and every legislative session brings the President closer to the next election, or the end of the second term and the historical record. Lame duck Presidents fare badly with policy initiatives, behaving more like caretakers than recognized leaders.

The President brings his agenda to the public through the mass media. Ronald Reagan, dubbed The Great Communicator, dramatically carried his message directly to the people through national television audiences. His ample White House staff conveys to Congressional supplicants his desires. Lyndon Johnson provided a vision of a Great Society, reminiscent of the New Deal. Then, building on his vast legislative experience, he swiftly enacted his proposals. Congress remained bewildered and overwhelmed by the energetic and skillful President Johnson. Presidents are skillful in bringing to bear the considerable resources that they command.

The President can create a historical policy thrust as the centerpiece and beacon of his administration: Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned a New Deal; Lyndon Johnson, a Great Society; Ronald Reagan, a conservative revolution. George H.W. Bush, as the Vice-President under Reagan, carried forward the policies which he had loyally supported for two terms and which appeared popular. This succession may have hampered his ability or desire to strike off on his own policy path. The Iraq war is the singular legacy of George W. Bush.

Presidents do not sustain policy initiatives on personal charm or opinion polls. The President marshals substantial political resources. The President commands daily media attention; possesses detailed information, technical and political; supervises a massive bureaucracy; appoints to key governmental posts; oversees a two-trillion dollar budget; wields (or threatens to wield) a veto over legislation; and enjoys the services of a substantial and completely loyal White House staff. Even access to the President's schedule becomes a chit in a political process built on reciprocity. The President enjoys a free hand in organizing a large personal staff that professes loyalty and need not be confirmed by Congress. As chief executive officer of a diverse and massive federal bureaucracy, he can send agents to intervene at will in the institutional agenda.

The Executive Office of the President has grown dramatically since President Nixon. The White House, in fact, is a major office building complex, much of it built underground. The chief of staff assumes a significant role in American politics. Some are smooth, such as James Baker under Reagan and, late in his term, George H.W. Bush, while others are brusque and controversial, such as John Sununu also under George H.W. Bush. One recent chief of staff, John Haldemann, went to jail in the sordid Watergate affair of the shattered Nixon presidency.

The President has substantial back-up. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) renders vital assistance in formulating and reviewing the national budget. Under President Reagan, OMB chief David Stockman terminated many programs and overwhelmed Congress with his proficiency. He later wrote a scathing critique of the Reagan administration, the ultimate revenge of a jilted insider.

The President enjoys great flexibility in several functional areas: foreign policy, economic management, and military affairs. The National Security Council, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Council of Economic Advisors report directly to the President. The President is Commander-In-Chief. The Secretary of State maintains a close working relation with the President. George H.W. Bush picked his long time personal friend and Houston neighbor, James Baker, to run State, even though Baker had little foreign policy experience.

There are limitations and constraints even on a President. After a honeymoon period, rarely more than a year, obstacles emerge and legislators, facing the voters two years before the President, may become recalcitrant. Mid-term congressional elections have often gone to the opposing party -- 2006 is the latest example of a popular rebuke of a President. The sheer scale of the bureaucracy can, however, provide inertia. Even so powerful a President as Franklin Delano Roosevelt acknowledged that he could not budge the Department of the Navy, despite his experience as Secretary of the Navy. The entrenched Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, had seen Presidents come and go and could oppose President Kennedy with impunity.

Policy initiatives cost money, often lots of money. Since the tax cuts and defense build-up of the early 1980s under President Reagan, the federal deficit has burgeoned. The Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, better known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, requires that the annual national budget deficit be reduced by formula if the President and the Congress cannot agree on a spending plan which meets budget reduction targets. Such a fiscal environment smothers bold, new, expensive policy initiatives. The "no new taxes" pledge taken by presidential aspirants has disciplined has discouraged new policy directions. While the dissolution of the Soviet Union has removed the major military threat, the so-called peace dividend appears elusive, and multiple claims have gushed forward. The wealthiest nation in history cannot afford to offer adequate public policy responses to such issues as the AIDS epidemic, increases in homelessness, and foreign aid assistance to the newly founded Republics of the former Soviet Union. Expectations have been dramatically lowered.

Despite the dominant political position of the President, consummate skills are needed to accomplish a legislative agenda. President Carter, for example, quickly alienated the leadership in Congress. Carter experienced friction and resistance even within his own party. After major congressional setbacks in 1982, President Reagan, a Republican, faced substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, yet managed to accomplish much of his agenda. However, Reagan's nemesis, Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, often frustrated the President's agenda, especially after 1982. By 1987, over half of the President's positions failed to gain Congressional support.

Finally, keep in mind that Presidents are more comfortable keeping control of the policy agenda than in micro-management, the mundane tasks of managing the federal government or battling Congress over their agenda. To the extent the President uses the annual State of the Union address to roll-over agenda items or introduce new ones, he prevents others from usurping the agenda. The President, probably more than anyone else, recognizes that control of the agenda is the supreme instrument of power.

Other Sources of Policy Agenda

The President does not operate in a vacuum. There are many ways onto the public agenda, particularly the micro or institutional agenda. We will examine the role of Congress and the media, than turn to those avenues open to wider public participation. As an institution, Congress was not designed to initiate policy as the President does. It checks and balances the President, but cannot muster the coherent voice of a President speaking out on national priorities.

Congress has built-in disadvantages in agenda building. The sheer size of Congress and the necessity to serve the needs of a local constituency prevent individual Congressional leaders from stealing the national limelight from the President. The two houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, thrive on compromise and majority-building, preferring working together to taking bold initiatives. They can exert great influence in their respective Committees and Sub-Committees, especially the Chairs. But, even then, the agenda results through internal compromise and the influence of forces and agents outside of Congress, such as lobbyists, administrative agencies, and constituents.

The Committee structure and the personal interests of Congressional Representatives, occasionally generates what we here call champions within particular micro-policy areas. Representative Claude Popper, a Democrat from Florida, championed the interests of senior citizens. Senator Samuel Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, is a nationally recognized expert on defense policy. Former New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, campaigned long and hard for welfare reform, which began with his work for the Nixon administration, although he is a Democrat -- eventually prodding President Clinton into welfare reform. Democratic Representative Henry Gonzalez of Texas brought the Savings and Loan scandal to public attention, even to the embarrassment of members of his own party. Socialist Bernard Sanders of Vermont is less likely to make an impact: he is in his first term and he cannot turn to party leadership for his committee assignments.

The legislature's effect on policy making will be continued in the next chapter, policy formulation. As we will see, the process of majority building is fundamental to ratification of legislation intended to further policy prescriptions.

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Initialized: July 10, 2001 | Last Update: 05/29/2014