How Change Happens – Or Doesn’t

Book Review:

Elaine C. Kamarck – How Change Happens – Or Doesn’t: The Politics of US Public Policy

This book is a primer on the intersection of policy and politics at the federal level in the United States, looking at a variety of case studies of policy initiatives and dissecting why they did or didn’t work.

How does a controversial bill get through Congress and signed into law?  Why do bills with bipartisan support die ignominiously in Congress? The outcomes of American politics are notoriously difficult to predict, and in this book Kamarck uses her background as a policy advisor and political scientist to help the reader better understand what’s going on under the hood. She takes apart notable successes and failures and looks at what makes them different, and what factors must be kept in mind for any future policy-makers.

How Change Happens doesn’t provide much new information for someone who is familiar with the history of US politics, but the framework that it offers is a useful and educational one. Passing major legislation is not a question of mandates, elections, poll numbers, or bipartisanship. Those are all-too-often either myths (e.g. the idea of mandates) or illusions (e.g. rigged or misleading polling data). Instead, it’s about public perceptions, political factions, and the context in which politicians and the public view the proposed policy.  The perspective that the author offers on the political process, and the ways that it can confound or spur forward the policy-making process, is one that I have found highly useful over the last few months.

Her description of the “policy window,” the period in which it is possible to pass significant legislation, is particularly useful. Policies may be in development for some time, or created spur-of-the-moment in reaction to a crisis, but they cannot be put into place until the politics are right and the policy window opens, which often happens abruptly and with little warning.

When such a policy window opens, the nature and effectiveness of the legislation is often a result of the amount of time a policy idea has been waiting in the wings, ranging from a a slap-dash attempt to fix a suddenly-critical problem to a policy proposal that has been worked on and polished over a decade and finally moves through Congress when the moment is ripe.

Kamarck is a left-leaning policy wonk and professor of policy studies, but the book was written for a broad student audience – there are no arguments for or against particular policies, nor is there excessive use of academic jargon. Instead, the writing is both approachable and clinical in its discussion of politics and policy over the last century. Combined with the relatively short length (140 pages) this is an excellent introduction to the policy-making process in the federal government.


Bonus 2 cents:

Is the Tax Code Really 70,000 Pages Long?  Andrew L. Grossman, Slate, 4/14/14

I saw this in my newsfeed this morning, and thought it deserved a remark or two.

To sum up the article, the author is debunking the frequently-repeated myth that the federal tax code is an enormous multi-volume 70,000 page monstrosity. Instead, he says, the tax code itself is actually somewhere between 2,600 and 4,000 pages, depending on your definitions. The source for the “70,000 pages” datum is apparently from the length of the CCH Standard Federal Tax Reporter, a volume that, in addition to the actual text of the tax code, contains a massive compilation of “legislative history, Treasury Regulations, editorial commentary, and collected court cases” to aid tax lawyers and accountants in their work.

In other words, while the tax code itself is a “mere” couple thousand pages, the information needed to understand the tax code and how it works in practice fills at least 70,000 pages, with all of the added complexity and potential for corruption that that implies.

While I do appreciate Mr. Grossman’s clarification of the actual length of the tax code, I find the implications to be less than reassuring…


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