Iron Triangles

What Are Iron Triangles?

Political scientists have discovered what might be the key reason why public policy is narrow in scope, produces mainly minor adjustments to past practices, and seems to work for the benefit of established interests. Their language sounds ominous: subgovernments, iron triangles, or interest group liberalism.

Most Americans probably have some idea of what a special interest is and probably resent it as a betrayal of a more general good in which they share. They do not think in terms of some elastic abstraction or espoused cause presumptuously called the public interest, but the palpable material and cultural interest of themselves, their kids, their friends, their neighbors, their co-workers. How interest groups operate in the narrow institutional realm of micro-policy and what effects are produced is what the discussion of iron triangles encompasses.

An early statement of the distortions introduced by a myriad of private interests in public policy came from the political scientist Ernest S. Griffith. Consider his famous and pithy depiction of whirlpools:

"One cannot live in Washington for long without being conscious that it has whirlpools or centers of activity focusing on particular problems. ... It is my opinion that ordinarily the relationship among these men --legislators, administrators, lobbyists, scholars --who are interested in a common problem is a much more real relationship than the relationship between congressmen generally or between administrators generally. In other words, he who would understand the prevailing pattern of our present governmental behavior, instead of studying the formal institutions or even generalizations of organs, important though all these things are, may possibly obtain a better picture of the way things really happen if he would study these "whirlpools" of special social interests and problems."

Many followed Griffith's advice and studied these hypothetical whirlpools in motion. This was a new approach to government and, implicitly, public policy research. Previously, political scientists and historians examined a particular branch of government in isolation. Instead, Griffith advocated a realistic and comprehensive concern for the resolution of issues. He wanted to study actual behavior, rather than the form or function of an organization.

The whirlpool image, instructive as it was, failed to keep pace with the changes in government. Since Griffith wrote, before World War II, government has expanded greatly, making the Washington establishment even more powerful, dense, and complex. The proposed relation-ships among the interested parties may not be as fluid as the whirlpool metaphor conveys. Political scientists found that another metaphor fit the facts.

Writing twenty-five years after Griffith, Douglas Cater observed durable subsystems influencing the way government behaved and made policy. He referred to these networks as iron triangles and subgovernments. What Cater depicted was not as fluid and pluralistic as Griffith hypothesized. Cater wrote in 1964:

In one important area of policy after another, substantial efforts to exercise power are waged by alliances cutting across the two branches of government and including key operatives from outside. In effect, they constitute subgovernments of Washington comprising the expert, the interested, and the engaged. ...The subgovernment's tendency is to strive to become necessary to its purposes. Each resists being overridden.

According to Cater, public policy is normally the result of the interaction among interested --- and legitimate --- sets of actors. They define the institutional agenda carefully, keep off items which might upset past compacts., seek to maintain control and stability, possess and wield selectively technical knowledge, and discourage intruders such as investigative journalists or good-government groups, such as consumer advocates.

Cater rejected the whirlpool metaphor, depicting these subgovernments as iron triangles. The alarming and pejorative shift in language seemed intentional. Although the parties had overt stakes in the outcomes of policy making, they ensured a narrow scope of the agenda and incremental changes, if any at all. The notion that iron triangles controlled policy making conveyed both a constraint on the scope of public policy and a denial of fair play. This made concrete and illegitimate the role of special interests in government. What did Cater observe about Iron Triangles? He documented informal, mutually supportive working alliances among three groups:

  1. Administrative staff are policy-level career professionals within government bureaucracies of the executive branch. These are usually seasoned, skillful, informed, and well placed to influence both the agenda and the scope of the policy debate.

  2. Interest group leaders, have a stake in the outcomes of public policy and have every right to be heard. They enjoy access to technical information to feed to analysts, maintain trade organizations in the vicinity of the halls of government, and enjoy the influence which money can rent from elected officials. They often are viewed as the clients of the policy making process. The dispersed groups of recipients among the public at large may not be effectively represented by public interest groups.

  3. Congressional committees include elected representatives and their administrative staff, technical and political. At all levels of government, the size, role, and expertise of staff has grown significantly in the last twenty years. The staff often assumes a key advisory role. Some members of Congress become experts in the scope of their committees, such as retired Senator Sam Nunn (D. Ga.), who is highly regarded as an expert on defense strategy. It was Nunn who pushed for the tactical weapons systems which proved so effective in fighting the 1990 Gulf War.

The results include stability, a status-quo bias, a form of micro-efficiency, a high degree of predictability. Subgovernments can sustain influence throughout the policy cycle. However, such cozy arrangements can be upset by crisis or intense pressure, such as from environmental groups. But iron triangles will be back. Never underestimate their durability. They are known to develop specialized language and arcane rules. Since they control the arena, they are difficult to effectively counter. Detractors blame iron triangles for inertia, inaction, and incrementalism, all seen as failures of policy to address legitimate problems. Critics view such cozy alliances as counter to widely shared notions of open society based on free exchange of information, multiple sources of influence, and public accountability.

The range of interested parties banging at the doors of Congress and the government bureaus has expanded greatly since Cater wrote. Indeed, Dionne notes that conservatives, in particular, found subgovernments initially functional and legitimate, but withdrew support once a bevy of newcomers arrived or, K Street in Washington, D.C., where lobbyists tend to situate their offices.

Just as Cater rejected the image of whirlpool, others object strongly to the pejorative depiction of iron triangles. Hugh Heclo sees a far looser and permeable set of what he calls policy networks.

The method invented by Cater is alive and well. The insider handbook to subgovernments, the Washington Information Directory lists at $145 per annual issue and identifies parties for each the relevant executive, legislative, and private interest group -- examine the Congressional Quarterly web site. Note that this Washington-insider publication organizes its data base according to the legs of Cater's iron triangles.

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Initialized: October 19, 2002 | Last Update: 11/9/2009