The Scope of Public Policy


The most poignant and compelling anecdote that I can offer to appreciate the ubiquity of government occurred in 1978 when I accepted an invitation to speak at a meeting of the City Wide Block Association in Jersey City, New Jersey. City Wide, as people called it, did not really represent all the citizens of this city of about 250,000, but did encompass most African-American neighborhoods, about one-third of the city. The organization had a sizable and active following, including many home-owning families, a formidable track record, and impressive leadership.

Before I spoke. I listened attentively to another guest, a very tall, well-dressed black man who had earned an Ivy League degree. With the vibrant rhetorical flourish of a Southern preacher, he held his audience's rapt attention. I cannot quote him exactly, but I can come close, with a single exception: Every time the speaker used the term politics, I will substitute public policy:

'You want to talk about public policy? I'll be happy to talk about public policy. But first what is public policy? Let me tell you what it is. It's your kids' education. It's whether you will get an ambulance when you need it. It's whether you can afford housing. It's the quality of the air you breathe and the water you drink. Public policy is about whether you have a job or not or whether you can walk down the street in safety. It's the junkie on the corner and the trash and rodents in the gutter. It's how long you will live and how dignified will be your burial.'

The speaker's point is obvious: The scope of government activities effects our lives in countless, often subtle and unrecognized, ways each day, for better or worse. And at some cost. Small wonder that citizens rebel at paying taxes when they have little appreciation for often hidden government services. The contradiction is that while many wish not to pay for government, many benefit from it and wish it to serve them better. Each of us has a stake, even if that benefit is as general as such public goods as clean air, economic growth, and national defense. We benefit collectively, directly and indirectly, and my consumption of the public good does not diminish yours.

Managing the Nation's Economy

The economy is almost always on the front page in some form or another. Such themes dominate the news: the meltdown of the financial structure, the price of a barrel of oil and a gallon of gasoline, the rate of unemployment and of inflation, the costs of home-ownership, economic globalization, working conditions and wages, and record-busting deficits -- spending more than revenue can support -- , performance of stock markets, international trade imports and exports, and the rate of economic growth. The President and Congress is held accountable for the performance of the national economy. The stakes are high. The economy is always a presence.

Consider the role of the federal government in determining the level of unemployment. Prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s, if you were unemployed, it was considered your problem, if not your own fault. The level of unemployment in the nation was redefined with the New Deal, a policy designed by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to soak up much of the widespread unemployment of the 1930s. In fact, the prodigious effort exerted during World War II --- another public policy --- ended the mass unemployment of the time. After the war, the Employment Act of 1945, based on the economic theory of John Maynard Keynes, was passed, establishing the basis of fiscal and monetary policy and asserting that the federal government assumed the responsibility of managing the economy as a whole, the macro-economy. Its legislated goals were explicit: economic growth, low unemployment, low inflation. and a favorable balance of international trade. Few would argue that the government must take on these responsibilities -- although a global economy complicates this mandate.

The federal role in the economy has expanded, bit by bit: supporting small business and area development, eliminating job discrimination by race, then gender and age, and subsidizing job training. Informally, much public works funding, including the siting of military bases and the construction of roads, were thinly veiled attempts to lower unemployment in specific places such as the South and West Virginia.

These programs became popular, generated support, and are hard to cut even when calling for less government. Political leaders often confuse public works and military spending -- often called pork barrel spending (or simply pork) and now called earmarks -- for job creation programs which affect a particular geographical area such as a state or an Congressional District. Yet. the imperative to bolster employment goes beyond pork barrel politics into broader, less particularistic, policy matters. Consider the case below.

When President Reagan tried to eliminate job training, which conservatives held was beyond the appropriate scope of government, he met resistance in Congress. As the recession of the early 1980s deepened to unemployment rates of over 10% and as the 1982 Congressional election loomed closer, the President reversed his position. This change was not due to a revision of his conservtive ideology, but due to the expectation of the electorate that the government should mount efforts to reduce unemployment and the anticipation that the voters would exhibit their disappointment in the upcoming Congressional elections.

After the elections, which went badly for Republicans, the Senate took up job training. Senators Dan Quayle (Republican of Indiana) and Ted Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts), both associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum, jointly introduced legislation which dealt with job training in a comprehensive manner, cost over four billion dollars each year, and established over five hundred local programs (enough to cover all Congressional Districts). The President signed the bill, chastising the Democrats for taking too long to come up with a bill --- that he had earlier promised to veto. Practical politics superseded espoused principles.

Environmental Protection

The role of the federal government in the management of the economy is not the only major responsibility assumed by Washington. Consider environmental protection policy. Richard Nixon campaigned on the premise that the Great Society programs installed by Lyndon Johnson had been excessive and had fueled social unrest. He proclaimed that government expansion should end, giving way to a period of reorganization and consolidation. However, President Nixon recognized that the demand for environmental protection had become generally popular. Although a self-proclaimed conservative, Nixon oversaw passage of a comprehensive environmental policy despite the added costs and regulatory burdens. Consider the spate of legislation which Nixon signed:

The bulwark on environmental protection in the United States occurred largely at the request of a conservative Republican President. President Carter expanded the policy in such areas as coastal zone management and strip-mining while President Reagan cut environmental spending largely by failing to carry out legislation rather than trying to terminate the programs themselves. These programs were so popular that another conservative, George H.W. Bush, campaigned under the label, the environmental president. President William Clinton greatly expanded public lands and moved to conserve whole ecosystems, often exasperating Western land-based interests. President George W. Bush has been criticized for anti-environmental measures. In the 2000 presidential campaign, he promised action on global warming, which he later withdrew.

The high stakes of historical policy initiatives translate into high costs. The total outlay of federal, state, and local government continues to rise despite over twenty years of taxpayer revolt. In fact, government spending rose more under President George W. Bush, a foe of government spending, than any other president since world War 11. His Medicare Part D prescription drug program was the largest expansion of the welfare state since President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s. The mandate of government continues to expand.

Still, the governmental spending in the U.S. remains well behind the other major industrial countries when figured as a percentage of the gross national product --- the total market basket of goods and services produced each year. The portion of the nation's economic activity controlled by all levels of government has declined somewhat. We will discuss the numbers under the budget component of the public policy cycle.

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Initialized: June 17, 2001 | Last Update: 05/28/2014