How effectively does the USA’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
The resources for strategic planning directly available to the president are impressive. Other than the formal structures in the Executive Office of the President, which have a statutory basis, the White House has an impressive number of senior policy assistants, the most well-known of whom is the assistant to the president for national security affairs, who chairs the National Security Council with a staff of 250. In addition, there are assistants for health care, climate change and energy, intergovernmental relations, urban affairs, political affairs and a legislative liaison with a staff of 440 professionals alone. How much influence is given to long-term, general plans varies with the president and with circumstances. For example, during the Obama administration, long-term fiscal planning considerations have been sacrificed to short-term anti-recession goals. Legislative measures that affect spending and revenues are required to be accompanied by 10-year projections of fiscal impact, approved by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Nevertheless, the projections often assume future actions (such as permitting the expiration of a tax cut) that are unlikely to transpire. Policies are often designed with heavy emphasis on short-term electoral considerations. For example, the mandates for individual purchases of health care insurance in the Obama Health Care reform will not go into effect until 2014.
Non-governmental academic experts are influential as long as they share some of the ideological assumptions and goals of the government in power. The real avenue of influence for scholars and experts in the U.S. system is to be appointed to a government position or serve in formal or informal advisory roles. This system also affords the research networks or traditions from which these experts come a degree of influence. The Obama administration has made extensive use of tapping the scholarly talent pool, as a number of its high-level appointments show: Larry Summers of the National Economic Council, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, or Susan Rice, the U.N. Ambassador, are distinguished academics or researchers from universities or think tanks. The use of academic experts inside and outside of government may best be described as “issue networks” that are based on scholarly credentials, but at the same time serve certain ideological and value positions. It is only the latter that gives issue networks entry into the political arena. There is every indication that the exchange between academic experts and the Obama administration has been intensified. This is particularly true for the fields of economics, environment, climate change and energy, and health care. The Bush administration was widely criticized as ignoring scientific and academic research, and manipulating the membership of advisory committees, to favor conservative ideological positions and business interests–on issues such as stem cell research, the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, tax cuts and climate change. The Obama administration demonstrated a more sophisticated recognition of scientific and academic expertise in all these areas and more.
The closest analogue to a GO or PMO in the U.S. system is the White House Staff. It has vastly extensive resources for assessing and developing legislation – including separate, large staffs for economic policy, foreign and national security policy, and domestic policy. The White House (or the White House Staff, provided it has presidential support) not only has the expertise and authority to return or reject cabinet proposals, but it is itself frequently the source of major policy proposals, with departments and agencies playing only an auxiliary role. The White House is essentially sovereign vis-a-vis the line agencies. It decides how much participation to permit the line agencies, and has generally dominated policy-making on major issues in recent years. In some cases, however, the executive leadership may deliberately decide to leave the formulation of policy to a department or interdepartmental committee, as in the case of the reform of the financial sector, because of the complexity of the issue. In this case, the Treasury Department played a prominent role. On complex legislation, because specific provisions are negotiated within Congress, effective White House influence requires leading or at least overseeing the negotiations between the executive branch, the key congressional committees, and the party leaders in Congress. Obama has been largely successful in this. In the enormously complex economic stimulus, health care, and financial reform negotiations, executive branch negotiators were consistently reasonably attuned to the president’s priorities.
Cabinet meetings are rarely used for decision-making. The important question is whether legislative proposals from line departments are (a) accepted as presidential proposals; (b) permitted to be submitted as departmental (but not White House) proposals; or (c) blocked from being submitted to Congress. These decisions are made by the president’s top aides (i.e., the White House Staff) or by the president. Among White House Staff and departmental officials, the relationships of authority and relative access to the president vary considerably, even within one administration. These things depend on the president’s overall strategy and for a particular piece of legislation. The White House is basically sovereign vis-a-vis the line departments and agencies.
Given that the center of political gravity is the presidency itself, the issue to explore here is the extent to which the White House and the Executive Office of the President involves the line departments and agencies in policy-making. The example of the health reform process demonstrates that this involvement is highly selective. One of the more relevant dimensions in administrative conflict is the cleavage between the career civil service and political appointees within ministries. This conflict has been present ever since the Reagan administration came to power in the early 1980s. The layer of political appointees is generally so thick that civil servants will only thrive on the basis of accommodation.
Colin Campbell, “The Complex Organization of the Executive Branch”, in: Joel D. Aberbach/Mark A. Peterson (eds.), The Executive Branch, New York: Oxford UP, 2005, 243-282.
Compared to cabinets in parliamentary system, the president’s cabinet – although an advisory body – plays a relatively limited role in policy-making. This does not mean that there is no preparation of top-level (i.e., involving the president) decision-making meetings. Rather, these advisory processes are structured differently for each president and vary as well from one policy measure to another. The relevant meetings may be chaired by a cabinet member or a high-level White House staffer; this depends largely on the particular personnel and their relations with the president. Under recent presidents, these meetings have been arranged by the president’s closest aides in the White House, although Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner spearheaded the financial system reform. Within the context of the U.S. presidential system, the issue is whether presidential advisory processes, however structured, effectively filter out or settle issues so that the president can focus on strategic policy debates. As long as the president supports the process, the answer to this question is yes, as is the case with President Obama. In contrast, President Clinton often engaged in massively detailed and wide- ranging policy discussions, demonstrating that this is a matter of personal preference.
Central White House-based actors may include in central decision-making processes senior officials (i.e., career and non-career civil servants) from the 15 departments. This is particularly true for foreign affairs and international economic policy.
Career civil servants are rarely involved in providing policy proposals related to legislation. In administrative terms, civil servants can be somewhat involved in developing policy proposals, though not without strict supervision by political appointees. Executive branch policy-making is often coordinated by ad hoc interagency committees when it comes to issues not central to the president’s agenda. Such committees are chaired by a political appointee in one of the participating agencies, not by a civil servant. The large number of political appointees in the U.S. executive branch is demonstrative of the limited role played by civil servants in this context.
If White House coordination of policy is seen as an informal mechanism, then most policy coordination is done informally, with teams of shifting members and ad hoc structures. A good example is the Obama administration’s policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was developed primarily by a White House-centered team of national security officials. However, White House coordination is generally not “informal,” in the ordinary meaning of that word. Although practices vary enormously, from president to president, and issue to issue, it is likely to involve an advisory committee (sometimes ad hoc) of defined membership (i.e., including an individual performing the function of chair) that holds scheduled meetings with pre-specified agendas, involves staff preparation and briefing papers, and a person responsible for briefing the president with options and recommendations. Given the limited amount of long-term institutionalization of these arrangements, the president’s success in setting up and leading effective advisory processes is an important factor in his performance. Understanding these processes requires analyzing particular decisions in blow-by-blow detail and requires inside information, such as extensive interviewing in the White House.
The U.S. government provides for extensive analysis of major decisions, within both the legislative and executive branches, and for administrative or regulatory decisions as well as legislation. Regulatory impact assessment is performed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on the executive side and by the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Congressional Research Service on the legislative side. RIA activities are centrally registered. Under an executive order from the early 1980s, the OMB has a mandate to assess all regulations that executive agencies seek to promulgate. Regulations cannot take effect before a cost-benefit analysis has been performed by the agency and approved by the OMB; the OMB may reject a regulation either because the benefits are insufficient or the costs excessive or because the agencies’ analysis is inadequate. This is a highly political process. Under Republican presidents, it was frequently directed towards containing or curtailing the issuing of environmental and work safety regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Health and Safety Agency. Under Obama (as in the Clinton administration) the disposition toward new regulations is far more supportive, as the administration’s attitude to the regulation of greenhouse gases by the EPA has shown.
The most ambitious projects in policy analysis were the studies by the CBO on health care reform and climate change. These were not limited to the budgetary impact, but addressed the wider policy consequences, including distributional and employment effects of climate change legislation as well as a study on the regional impact of global warming in the United States. The Congressional Research Service also conducted several notable studies on climate change. The CBO study on health care focused primarily on issues of budgetary impact, but it did touch on many other issues, including coverage.
The analytical depth of impact assessment is high, particularly by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Government Accountability Office. Even though an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) impact analysis is subject to political strictures reflecting the priorities of the presidential administration, the level of quality required from the agencies is also high. For example, during the debate on health care reform, the CBO developed analytically sound, sophisticated estimates of numerous features of each major proposal in the debate, updating these as significant revisions were made. These include budget costs, effect on the budget deficit, costs of private insurance coverage, employment, and percentage of the population receiving coverage, health care costs, among other aspects–over various time periods. With respect to regulatory analyses, narrowly defined, agencies are required to provide quantitative estimates of costs and benefits. The analysis on the benefit side includes specifying the need for action.
Alternative options are usually identified, and assessed in varying degrees of depth. Cost-benefit analysis is a central feature of RIAs within the U.S. system. In a legislative context, the CBO will carry out analyses of major alternative proposals, provided they have significant sponsorship or political support (rank-and-file members can introduce bills, many of which do receive any consideration). However, Congress is under no obligation to consider any alternatives or act on the basis of analytical findings.
The policy process in the United States is open and characterized by the participation of the entire pluralistic spectrum of social and economic actors. The White House maintains direct relationships with interest groups and the media and generally consults widely in the development of presidential proposals. It usually will include likely opponents of these measures, such as utility companies in the case of potential greenhouse gases measures. It will certainly line up the likely supporters. It may or may not use these consultations to shape its proposals, as opposed to merely seeking support. The main focus of political participation, however, is the legislative process in the U.S. Congress. Hearings are scheduled on most legislative initiatives and on general policy issues. The president’s program is promulgated through media-based strategies to reach the public or crucial segments of the public that are expected to support presidential initiatives – mobilization is therefore selective. Targeting strategies are crucial to ensuring that interest groups supporting the president are place on alert in advance of the congressional policy process. The Bush administration usually pursued a strategy of sharp polarization that precluded consensus-based strategies. The Obama administration, in contrast, has gone out of its way to reach a consensus, in the sense of bipartisanship. That is, it has reached out to groups opposed to its line of policy. This was particularly evident in the formulation of the stimulus package and somewhat so in the case of health care policy. In the latter case, the Obama administration communicated not only with service providers, but also with religious groups (on abortion) and unions. The Obama administration’s efforts largely won the support of the pharmaceutical firms and health insurance companies. And although this support constrained the final measure on health care, it was likely a crucial factor in getting the legislation enacted. The administration had little success with the strategy of bipartisanship, as only a few Republicans supported the bill at any stage of the process. In any case, there is no expectation that presidential or congressional consultation with societal groups will lead to consensus among those groups.
Ever since the more fractured administrations of the 1970s, a coherent communication strategy within an administration that is based on presidential goals has become the norm. This is particularly true with reference to communicating the administration’s goals to the public. The Bush administration excelled in managing its public communication strategy in a coordinated and cohesive manner (“staying on message”). To a degree, however, this also reflects an administration that does not tolerate dissent from the core White House position. The Bush administration demonstrated a strong tendency towards “narrow-casting” in an attempt to target and expand his base of conservative voters. This tendency lessened in the final year of the administration, when the financial crisis hit. Here the communications strategy was less coherent as events and reactions became unpredictable.
The Obama administration’s communication strategy has also displayed a remarkable amount of discipline and focus, and has been much less polarizing. The attempt at bipartisanship produced a more conciliatory rhetoric. It can be questioned, though, whether the Obama administration managed to explain health care reform effectively to the electorate, particularly how extension of coverage would coincide with cost savings.
The basic make-up of the U.S. system with its separation of powers is designed to make policy achievement of the president’s or any other coherent set of goals difficult. This is true even when the president’s party has the majority in Congress given the nature of differing incentives and voter bases. One also has to take into account that an administration can modify its approach to a policy during the legislative process when compromises with the legislature become necessary. For instance, the Bush administration’s initial efforts to stabilize the financial market failed. Only in October did Congress pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which was then used to recapitalize the banking sector instead of removing bad assets from banks’ balance sheets. The Obama administration also faced resistance to its stabilization program by those objecting to assistance being given to the banking sector. In the end, the financial system was successfully stabilized, and securities markets began to work properly. Altogether, the administration’s record on this issue is impressive for the American context.
Department heads serve at the discretion of the president, that is, the chief executive has full control over his appointments. The issue is not so much that ministers get out of line, but that they may get sidelined. Conflicts between the department heads and the White House occasionally emerge, but they are usually limited to a speech or remark that conflicts with presidential policy. Conflicts were expected to arise under the Obama administration between Secretary of State Clinton and the White House, and possibly between Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the head of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers. But none of these predictions came true. Department heads toed the White House line, and there was very little open inner-administrative conflict or warfare. There were, however, conflicts between Summers and Christina Romer, who resigned in frustration from her position as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. However, department heads have to be cognizant of the wishes of members of Congress, which has strong leverage over their budgets. In minor, administrative and regulatory matters, where there is no clear White House guidance, they may tilt towards pleasing legislative actors.
Monitoring of departments and agencies is far-reaching, and does not only apply to legislative proposals but also to rule-making. However, monitoring may vary according to the saliency of the issue and the nature of the problem. During the Bush years, the OMB reviewed the performance of more than 1,000 distinct programs, collecting data on more than 6,000 performance measures. President Obama has generally endorsed a strong emphasis on performance measurement, but his administration’s methods in this area are not yet well defined.
There are no semi-autonomous agencies in the U.S. administrative system. Independent regulatory commissions are deliberately set up by Congress outside the departmental system. Regular line agencies without departmental status such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not subject to department supervision. Instead, they are accountable directly to the White House and are closely watched by White House Staff. The same is true for their rule-making authority. The best example of this situation under the Obama administration is the close cooperation of the White House and the EPA in classifying C02 as a pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The White House explicitly endorsed the EPA’s “endangerment finding,” which set the regulation of greenhouse gases in motion. Large complex departments with heterogeneous units may display centrifugal tendencies among their units, a problem that the new Department of Homeland Security with heterogeneous units such as the customs service, immigration and naturalization service may be exposed to.
Governors and other state officials often complained that federal mandates require substantial expenditures without providing the necessary funds. In 1995, following the Republican takeover of Congress, Congress passed the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act to curb the practice of unfunded mandates. The act provides for certain incentives for Congress and regulatory agencies to identify potential unfunded mandates in the legislative or rule-making process, but does not prevent Congress or agencies from setting mandates. Coverage is narrow and judicial review limited. There are also exclusions and thresholds in the act, above all exceptions for mandates that are conditions of federal assistance or that arise out of the voluntary participation in federal programs. The act has not done away with mandates, but has curbed direct orders and drawn attention to the issue. The problem of unfunded mandates can best be seen as the result of the attempts to bridge the gaps that exist because of the lack of linkages between federal and state administrative systems. The Obama administration has implemented few measures that impose mandates on state governments. The one exception is health care reform, where there are likely to be substantial additional costs for some states in the expansion of the Medicaid program after 2016, when the federal government will not cover the full costs of such expansion. Some states plan to sue the federal government over a supposed intrusion into state sovereignty, others are planning laws and state constitutional amendments to limit the impact of the reform. The federal government does not take responsibility for ensuring the financial capacity of state governments to perform their functions. State governments have their own revenue sources (not created by the federal government), except insofar as the Constitution maintains and protects and, as independent governments, make their own decisions about taxing and spending in performing them.
The dual nature of U.S. federalism assures a large amount of discretion for lower level governments. Limitations enter through the system of grants-in-aid, the impact of cooperative federalism, the constitutional authority of the federal government to pre-empt areas of policy or impose obligations on state governments. The relative authority of the state and federal governments is a chronic source of controversy. The federal constitution is “the supreme law of the land.” It reserves authority to the states in many areas, but the interpretation of the constitutional division of authority is controversial and subject to change. In July 2010, a federal court, agreeing with the Obama administration, invalidated an Arizona law that provided for aggressive state level investigation and prosecution of illegal aliens. The U.S. political and legal elite are sharply divided over the question whether the federal government pervasively exceeds its legitimate constitutional authority in imposing decisions on state governments.
Due to the dual nature of the U.S. federal system, this question overwhelmingly applies to co-financed federal programs, where the federal government is entitled to set standards. Here the central government asserts its rights to set and monitor compliance with national standards. This applies also to civil rights. The national government has asserted standards of civil rights to most of its grant programs in health, education and welfare. However, there is also a strong movement to give subnational governments more discretion in the delivery of services. The bulk of public services are delivered by the respective local and state agencies, and standard-setting and compliance are carried out local levels with minimal intervention at the hands of the federal government. The most ambitious effort to set standards has been observed in education policy under the “No child left behind” act initiated by the Bush administration. This act mandates various measures including a teacher and schools evaluation process tied to test scores and sanctions (e.g., closing schools or turning them into charter schools). The Obama administration continued this policy by re-authorizing the act.
In a narrow sense, the United States as a world power and creator of many international organizations has naturally developed institutional structures (e.g., from the National Security Council to the United States Trade Representative) that are able to respond to its international obligations. Climate change negotiations have been firmly institutionalized in the Office of Global Affairs in the State Department. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security can be seen as a domestic structural response to the challenges of international terrorism. As a whole, the international focus on anti-terrorism units and law enforcement strategies has grown considerably. This remains true for the Obama administration. Whether the policies of these units and agencies have been successful or have stuck to multilateral norms is a totally different issue and dependent on the policy choices of each administration. The Obama administration has emphasized multilateralism, although this has led to only minor structural change. The best indication of change is the establishment of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, directed by Carol Browner, the former head of the EPA under the Clinton administration. Multilateralism is therefore more a matter of spirit or policy direction than of structural changes.
The United States has been less successful (or less willing) in adapting domestic policy-making structures to the nominal requirements of the international trade regime, in some cases resisting compliance with fully adjudicated obligations under the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Given the domestic political orientation of most members, Congress has placed low priority on compliance with international obligations.
As a world power, the United States will participate in international coordination and joint reform initiatives to the extent that these fall within the range of its interests. The position of the United States in the international system implies that transnational integration is of less relevance for American strategy. Consequently, the United States not only collaborates in reform initiatives promoted by international fora, but actively tries to determine their agenda. That is, the United States actively seeks and promotes international cooperation on its own terms. Examples include reform of the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. Human Rights Commission as well as reforms of the IMF and the World Bank, and most recently the reform of the international financial system. The United States is also an effective participant in the G-7/8 process. In all areas mentioned above, from international security to human rights, the United States has made contributions. During the Bush administration, the glaring exceptions were international climate change policy and the Rome Statute, the basis for the International Criminal Court. On climate change, the Obama administration has reversed the course, although it is unclear whether Congress will follow its lead. There is little movement toward ratifying the Rome Statute. The most notable change under the Obama administration is the move toward broader international fora such as the G-20 that include emerging market countries such as China, Brazil and India. This trend is also visible in the Major Economies Forum for Climate Change. Altogether this signals a departure from the focus on Europe and the transatlantic arena. This may also imply a reduced reliance on NATO.
Because incoming administrations have to invent themselves when taking office in the United States, institutional arrangements in the U.S. system are regularly probed and revised. This is particularly true for the administrative bodies at the executive level, where institutional arrangements including those with a statutory basis undergo extensive change with each new president’s administration. These institutions also undergo formal as well as informal changes during the course of an administration. The key mechanisms of self-monitoring involve the president’s discretionary powers in choosing personnel and defining the structures of authority and access to the president and his closest associates (who act as final arbiters). Administrative and organizational changes under the Obama administration have thus far been minor (e.g., the independent re-establishment of the National Economic Council under Larry Summers). Some more pronounced changes targeting increased oversight in the financial sector were expected as part of the federal government’s financial regulatory reform introduced in the fall of 2009.Expected changes included the introduction of an independent consumer protection office to protect borrowers from lending abuses. Contrary to some expectations, however, financial reform did not substantially consolidate existing regulatory responsibilities in the financial services industries or make fundamental changes to the structure of the regulatory agencies.
Every U.S. administration is an exercise in self-invention. In this sense, institutional arrangements come under scrutiny every four years. Institutional arrangements, particularly at the top level, are flexible and can be adjusted to the needs of the chief executive. This is also true within departments and agencies. However, the entire institutional set-up can only be changed with the consent of Congress. Congress resists structural change in the executive branch largely because it disrupts the jurisdictions of congressional committees, whose members develop expertise and cultivate political relationships that depend on those jurisdictions for many years. The constraints on institutional change became clear in attempts to change the fractured structure of financial oversight.
As one knowledgeable observer recently put it: “The political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented data sets in political science”. Although many of the survey measures, for the sake of long-term comparability, focus on factual knowledge about political institutions, processes and officeholders, there have been many demonstrations that the lack of information extends to matters of policy. However, some scholars have insisted that polarization in American politics has led to greater issue attentiveness among voters interested in politics. George W. Bush was a major figure in both polarizing and energizing the electorate. Polling showed that 50% of voters followed the 2000 election “somewhat closely.” In 2004, the percentage following “somewhat closely” jumped to 66%. In 2008, it increased further to 79%, with 32% following the election “very closely.” What remains unclear, however, is whether increased attentiveness leads to a stronger understanding of policy. The financial crisis, which peaked during the election campaign, elicited an unusual interest in economic and financial issues, though that interest was driven by fears and worries. The debates among presidential candidates also responded to interest in health care legislation. The use of Internet sources, text messaging and social networks helped to address information needs and may have increased the amount and quality of information voters acquired.
Scholars debate how important citizens’ lack of information is for their ability to perform their role effectively. But it seems unlikely that citizens with such large information gaps and misperceptions can be a reliably constructive force in policy-making in the United States.
The legislature’s right to government documents is well established in the U.S. system of government. Congressional committees have subpoena power to request documents. However, this power is sometimes limited by claims of executive privilege – which, with respect to confidentiality, was established judicially in the Watergate cases. The privilege applies to documents that reflect presidential decision-making and deliberation that the president believes should remain confidential. During the final months of the Bush administration, there was conflict regarding government information relating to financial institutions under the planned Troubled Asset Relief Program. Under the Obama administration, a similar conflict erupted over the data derived from the stress test for banks. Both of these conflicts were settled by compromise.
In most cases, the information Congress needs for policy-making – including the assessment of presidential proposals – does not fall under any plausible claim of executive privilege, and Congress can obtain almost any information that exists.
Department secretaries and other high level officials of the executive branch appear with great frequency and regularity, essentially on request, before legislative committees. In the context of an investigation, committees sometimes subpoena executive branch members to make an appearance. But most appearances are voluntary, motivated by the desire to maintain strong relationships with the congressional committee. This is true even though burdens on high level executives become considerable, with preparation for congressional appearances and the appearances taking up a significant share of executives’ time.
The structure of committees in the House of Representatives corresponds only in a rough way to the structure of the executive branch. But the deviations from such correspondence have little or no adverse effect on the ability of the House to monitor ministerial activities and performance – an ability that is, for other reasons, undoubtedly an outstanding feature of the U.S. Congress. With the growing ideological division between the two parties in Congress, the committees’ monitoring of the executive increasingly reflects the current political context. The majority party in each chamber (House and Senate) controls the agendas of the committees. Under divided party control of government, monitoring is thus more intense and shaped by political objectives. When the Democrats took over both houses of Congress in 2006, this led to two years of constant criticism and investigation of the Republican Bush administration. With the Democrats winning the presidency in 2008, the congressional scrutiny became less intense, more congenial, and less useful in terms of providing accountability.
Because members of Congress develop large stakes in monitoring and influencing particular programs, the structure of the congressional committee system often functions as a serious barrier to appropriate reorganization of the executive branch. Members of Congress oppose reorganizations that would disrupt their committee- and subcommittee-based relationships with particular programs and their constituencies, and such resistance is frequently a fatal obstacle to reorganization. In the example of financial regulatory reform, committee jurisdiction stood in the way of organizational reform because the proposed abolition of the Office of Thrift Supervision would have resulted in a committee losing its jurisdiction.
The General Accountability Office (GAO) is the independent non-partisan agency of the U.S. Congress charged with auditing activities. It is responsive to Congress alone. The GAO undertakes audits and investigations upon the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or if it is mandated by public laws or committee reports. The GAO also undertakes research under the authority of the Comptroller General. In addition to auditing agency operations, the GAO analyzes how well government programs and policies are meeting their objectives. It performs policy analyses and outlining options for congressional consideration. It also has a judicial function in deciding bid protests in federal procurement cases. In many ways, the GAO can be considered a policy analysis arm of Congress. The executive branch also has significant audit functions. Routine, detailed auditing of budget implementation is handled by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In addition, there are 69 offices of Inspector General (IG), assigned to various departments and agencies. The IGs have auditing functions and operate with significant independence from their agencies. Thus there is an auditing office that is responsible exclusively to the legislature, plus additional auditors with other forms of independence from the executive.
The U.S. Congress or its members, who cultivate close linkages with local constituencies, effectively function as an ombuds office. A separate institutionalization is not necessary in the U.S. system. Members of Congress each have several staff members – some located in Washington, D.C., and some in the respective state or district – dealing full time with constituents’ requests for service. The total number of staffers is estimated to range from 10,000 to 12,000 individuals. A weakness of this arrangement is that it is somewhat informal and the coordination and management of staffers is left up to the individual congressional office. Government agencies do not suggest that clients encountering difficulties should contact their senator or representative for assistance, and the constituency service staff does not develop specialized expertise, except for the most common categories of request (e.g., social security payments, visas for relatives, and the like).
Reputable news reporting and news analysis programs are available on radio and TV networks. The information quality of talk shows varies, ranging from infotainment to the serious discussion of issues with experts frequently involved. The emphasis is on an adversarial dialogue. C-Span 1-2 offers in-depth coverage of political proceedings in Congress and of political events in the wider sense, including proceedings at think tanks and academic institutions. A majority of citizens obtain most of their news from television rather than newspapers, and the quality of the national news broadcasts has been in decline, as the emphasis on human interest stories and entertainment has grown and the resources for news gathering have been severely cut.
The most worrying trend for some analysts and commentators is the decline of journalistic standards, especially in certain right-leaning media such as Fox News and some radio stations. These media exhibit pervasive ideological bias and often reckless if not intentional inaccuracy – tendencies that are not confined to identifiable commentary or opinion segments, but also affect news reporting. Their broadcasts amount to outright, polemical campaigning for or against certain political positions and their advocates, without regard for professional standards. Of course, the United States has had polarized, partisan media before (especially in the 19th century) and there are counterweights to the hard-line conservative media, such as the left-leaning MSNBC. Influential late-night comedy-news programs, such as the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, sometimes fulfill a counterweight function despite their role as infotainment shows. Nevertheless, the conservative media are significantly more prominent and influential, with Fox News by far the dominant cable TV news network. In any case, the polarization of the media both reflects and reinforces the general polarization of American political discourse. It may tend to enhance citizens’ attention to and participation in politics, at the cost of creating deeper, more severe conflicts. It is certainly not conducive to consensus building and deliberation.
For Congress, electoral programs are hard to assess, as individual members run their campaigns on their own merits, often emphasizing local concerns. Well-defined party initiatives, such as the Republicans’ 1994 Contract with America, are rare. With regard to presidential elections, party platforms, written at the presidential nominating convention, make numerous commitments to specific agenda items, and the winning candidate normally works hard as president to make good on them. These party platforms of course are designed to convey issues and positions that will mobilize support and facilitate electoral success. For the most part, they are broadly consistent. But the programs typically have severe deficiencies in realism and feasibility, promising much more than they can actually achieve. During recent election campaigns, neither party’s candidate offered a coherent fiscal plan in which spending, taxation and deficit projections came close to adding up. Instead, unacknowledged, implied or inevitable long-term deficits have been massive, making the candidates’ broad claims about their plans, in important respects, bogus. Nevertheless, electing George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 meant the public would receive tax cuts. The Obama campaign identified major policy issues that it began implementing after being elected: health care reform, a stabilization of the economy and financial markets, climate change, the restructuring of the automobile industry and greater engagement in Afghanistan. What fell by the wayside were higher taxes of affluent households and immigration reform.
Interest groups advocate policies that promote their members’ or constituencies economic and other interests. Such policies may or may not also have credible claims to benefit broader interests of the public. When they do have such claims, it is a major advantage for a group’s prospects for getting its policies adopted. For example, pharmaceutical companies can oppose almost any effort to reduce the costs of prescription medicines on the plausible grounds that large profits earned by a relatively few highly successful products provide funds to support further medical innovation. Interest groups have a stake, therefore, in identifying the best policies from the standpoint of serving their own interests while also providing benefits, or at least minimizing costs, for the general public. They also have a stake in presenting these policies in the most persuasive manner.
Citizens’ or public-interest associations’ competence in proposing reasonable policy initiatives is unusually high in the United States. This is in part due to the high level of professional staff associations are able to attract as well as the PR and communication skills they have been able to develop. This holds true for groups such as Friends of the Earth, the Environmental Defense Fund or the Sierra Club. From the standpoint of developing “reasonable” policies, they have the advantage of focusing on broad interests rather than narrow ones as their central mission. They are subject, however, to ideological biases and membership demands that tend to favor extreme views.
Such groups have impressive ability to marshal legal instruments in order to use the courts to enlarge the scope of environmental legislation. A key example thereof is the 2007 Supreme Court case of Massachusetts vs. EPA, in which the Court decided in favor of the EPA’s definition of CO2 as a pollutant and thereby having the authority to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. Environmental interest groups have built on this decision during the Obama administration to push the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
PD Dr. Martin Thunert University of Heidelberg
Prof. Andreas Falke University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
Prof. Paul J. Quirk University of British Columbia