Foundations of American Policy Formulation

Topics Remarks
The Constitution . . .

Public policy rests on the U.S. Constitution

Foundational aspects are: separation of powers, checks and balances, Federalism
Freedom trumps efficiency The Constitution produces a cumbersome arrangement: Keep it?
Majority building Essential criterion in democracy

Constitution of the United States of America

The Constitution of the United States of America is the legal basis of the institutional structure which underlies the formulation of public policy in America. Bear in mind that the Constitution was founded on the historical imperative to prevent tyranny, not as a means to provide the most effective arrangement for policy formulation and implementation. The system thus devised intended a limited scope of governmental activities and built decentralization and division of powers into the fabric of government.

Some would accuse the Constitution of actually hampering policy making by building fragmentation into the system, requiring cumbersome makeshift negotiations to overcome to get anything done at all. For example, in the 1992 Presidential election, independent candidate Ross Perot identified the American Constitution as an out-dated obstacle to effective government.

The success of the Constitution is its durability in the protection of personal freedoms and the prevention of tyranny. It does not render public policy making neat and tidy, however. It was no" intended to. Students interested in the Constitution should take a course devoted to American government. The discussion below stands as a brief survey from the perspective of how policy is effected. ^

Constitutional Hallmarks as Foundation of Public Policy

The foundational hallmarks of the American Constitutional system are:

  1. Separation of powers: The division of governmental powers among three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Over time, some have argued that centralization of authority has marked the Imperial Presidency, although since Reagan, the national government has spun activities and costs to state government, which has expanded faster than the national government over the last two decades.

  2. Checks and balances are inherent in the separation of powers to restrict the accumulation of power in any one branch. This was by the design of the framers of the Constitution. Note that Congress was further divided into two branches: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The President can veto laws passed by Congress, which can, in turn, overrule such vetoes. The Supreme Court reviews the decisions of Congress and the President. The system encourages negotiation, bargaining, and compromise, not neat and tidy policy making. The struggle for power among the branches is a main theme in American political history.

  3. Federalism: The Constitution gave to the states broad powers not specifically delegated to the national government. This was articulated in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or the people." These powers are considerable. The federal system thus contains three levels of government: national, state, and local. The last --cities, towns, counties, special districts --- are the creatures of the states. Keep in mind that policy often made in Washington is actually implemented and often financed at the state and local level. Further, state and local government is far more accessible to the individual citizen than the national government. ^

Freedom Trumps Efficiency

Thus, the Constitution was ingeniously created as a cumbersome arrangement, not a streamlined system designed to "get things done." Power is divided among the branches and among levels of government. Public opinion is reflected differently within elements within this complicated arrangement. Congress and the President each have different terms of office, times of elections, and geographical constituencies. This system is replicated at the state level. National policy thus reflects the situation and judgment of both the legislative and executive branches, subject to judicial review and to the influence of public opinion and pressure groups. ^

Majority Building: Essential in a Democracy

Essential to the legislative process is the concept of majority building. The way to approve a policy is to build a majority in its favor, often achieved through coalition . formation. Numerical majorities are called for in committee actions and roll-call voting. Negotiation, bargaining, compromise, and coalition formation are the key political processes at work in majority building. This does not mean that the legislative process is not influenced behind the scenes by powerful interests by which the few can influence the many. That raises the issue of power over both agenda setting and policy determination. ^

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Initialized: July 11, 2001| Last Update: 06/01/2014