Democrats are deciding how to trim their reconciliation bill, considering expiring programs, means testing eligibility, and using tax credits rather than spending. To make these new social programs last after Democrats lose power, today’s program design decisions are critical. Eric Patashnik finds that sustainable programs require incentivizing actors to see reforms through and not letting policy opponents re-organize to win at later stages. Stuart Kasdin finds that using the tax code and entitlements can increase program survivability, but that health and social welfare programs have a harder time surviving. They both say the policy battle isn’t over after a policy passes and its design matters to what lasts.
Guests: Eric Patashnik, Brown University; Stuart Kasdin, Goleta
Studies: Reforms at Risk; Budgeting Rules and Program Outcomes
Matt Grossmann: Can Democrats design social programs that survive? This week on The Science of Politics. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman. Democrats are deciding how to trim their reconciliation bill, considering expiring programs, means testing eligibility and using the tax code rather than direct spending. Will these new social programs last after Democrats lose power? How will program design decisions now matter for the longevity of these programs? This week, I talked to Eric Patashnik of Brown University about his work on the politics of programs survivability after reforms passed Congress. In his book, Reforms At Risk, his co-edited volume, Living Legislation and his new book project on policy backlash, Patashnik finds that designing programs for sustainability requires incentivizing actors to see reforms through and not let policy opponents reorganize to win as decisions moved to other venues or to future decision-makers.
After that, I talked to Stuart Kasdin of Goleta about his public administration review article, Budgeting Rules and Program Outcomes. He finds that using the tax code and entitlements can increase program survivability, but that health and social welfare programs like those Democrats are trying to pass have a harder time surviving. Patashnik says the policy battle isn’t over after a policy passes and it’s designed matters to what lasts.
Eric Patashnik: So I wrote a book a couple of years ago called Reforms At Risk and I’d say the main takeaway from the book is that the political battle doesn’t end when laws are enacted. It’s not easy to pass major laws, problems have to get on the agenda, solutions have to be crafted, winning coalitions have to be built, supporters have to overcome all the veto points of the Madisonian system. It’s a major accomplishment when a policy is signed into law, and yet even after all of that effort, the struggle to bring about tangible change to make a real difference in people’s lives on the ground has really only just begun. And what I show in the book is that policies can be repealed or eroded after enactment. The legislative majority that enacted the reforms won’t stay in power forever. They may be replaced by a coalition that has very different preferences and priorities. The organized groups that might’ve opposed the law and that maybe somehow the advocates were able to overcome that opposition initially, they might not necessarily disappear.
They can regroup. They can come back and fight another day. And of course we saw these kinds of dynamics in the remarkable 10 year battle over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans after the law was passed fought the ACA and multiple institutional venues, including state legislatures, the courts, of course, in the end, the law has survived, but some of its key provisions, including the individual mandate and actually a lot of the cost control measures that were in the law, like the Cadillac tax on high cost health plans, the independent payment advisory board, some of the things that really the economists that were involved in designing the law that thought were going to be most important to bending the healthcare cost curve, they were repealed. They didn’t last. They didn’t make it. And of course, 12 states are still not participating in the Medicaid expansion.
So the ACA has been a success in many ways, but it looked very, very different from what its architects imagined. In some, reform sustainability is a major challenge and I think it’s becoming even a bigger challenge in the current era of hyperpolarization and tight electoral competition. It makes it harder to protect laws against post enactment threats. And the last thing I’d say about the takeaway from the book is what I show is that policies tend to be more durable when they generate what scholars call positive policy feedback. When they build supportive coalitions who have a stake in the new policy, when they encourage actors like consumers or business firms to make hard to reverse investments predicated on the policy continuation and durable policies to also tend to weaken and divide opponents and undercut their institutional bases of support. How all of those changes when they do occur, make it more difficult or unattractive for subsequent politicians to reverse course, even if they have different preferences.
Matt Grossmann: Lots of programs are vulnerable in the first years after enactment.
Eric Patashnik: There’s of course an old saying that government programs are immortal. People often say, once you start something in Washington, you’ll never get rid of it. It’ll go on forever. People believe that because they look at the programs that have survived for a long time, like social security, the Interstate Highway Act, but what they’re not seeing are all the programs that were boring, but they didn’t make it. Some of them don’t make it. And political scientists have studied this question systematically and they found that programs are not immortal and that they tend to be most vulnerable during their first decade of existence. There was a really good study by some political scientist, Christopher Barry, Barry Burden, Will Howe, found in the first 10 years after enactment, a program has a four to five per chance of mutating or dying every year and a 1% chance of outright termination in every year.
And within 20 years, about 15% of programs actually die. But they also find that if a program can manage to survive a decade or so, they’re much more likely to continue without alteration. And this finding, I think, has now been replicated with different research designs by different scholars. But it seems to be pretty sturdy.
There’s a nice recent book Congress in Reverse by Jordan Ragusa, Nathaniel Birkhead that reaches a similar conclusion and they find that a law’s probability of repeal increases from the moment the president signs it until about a decade later. Now, of course there are exceptions. There are some times there are laws that have been around for a long time and then they’re repealed. AFDC, the Glass-Steagall Act. But those are exceptions. What we usually see is that policies are most vulnerable during their early years of their first decade. And I think that’s very actually, even though these research designs were using a different approach, sort of large and empirical analysis, it’s quite consistent with the policy feedback literature. It takes a while for a new law to take root and build a constituency. Until that happens, it’s a period of vulnerability.
Matt Grossmann: He says it may be better to be strategic than to start everything at once.
Eric Patashnik: Public policies are gambles and it’s impossible to know with certainty ex-ante which programs are going to endure. So quite understandably, there can be a temptation, just put a lot of chips on the board. Some of these bets are going to pay off. Some are not. People like Las Vegas. And that’s something that people do is you sort of gamble. On balance I would say I think that approach is a mistake and that it is better to be strategic. Kent Weaver of Georgetown and I have a piece that argues that policy sustainability risks can often be predicted in advance at least in their broad parameters, not with perfect certainty. But we argue that policymakers should be attentive to warning signs of possible trouble. For example, policies that have diffuse beneficiaries but impose short-term losses that are large in per capita size, they’re concentrated negative impacts on groups.
Other things equal, those are pretty likely to run into sustainability trouble. And if you’re going to sunset programs, given fiscal constraints, and that’s really the debate we’re seeing now is the Democrats would like to do everything, but they don’t have the votes to do everything. And they’re going to try to shrink the size of their bill to get Manchin’s support and so how do they do as good as they can given those constraints? I think it’s probably better to be strategic. And if you’re going to make some programs shorter, it makes sense to put a short timeline on the programs that are most likely to generate a strong constituency so that they will have the pressure in a few years when they come up for renewal to be continued. So for example, if we only offer dental benefits under Medicare for a few years, I think it’s a pretty good bet even if Republicans control Congress, they’re going to be under a lot of pressure to continue that.
Once you’ve offered senior citizens, a well-organized group, includes the middle class, they have organizations that lobby very effectively going to be very hard to turn that off. So something like that, I would say, just get the thing going. And I would take the risk that even if we lose control, Democrats lose control of Congress, there’ll be some pressure, but some other programs where the beneficiaries are more diffuse or they lack the political resources required from political lobbying and effective engagement, there are ones that you might want to say, we really need to make this thing as permanent as possible. The literature would suggest trying to make it last at least a decade, because it might take that long for the policies to stick.
Matt Grossmann: Programs for the poor are not destined to lose out, but they do need to be expansive.
Eric Patashnik: There’s been a lot of research on this. The axiom is programs for the poor or poor programs meaning that they’re going to be politically vulnerable. Chris Howard of the College of [inaudible 00:09:16] has a great book, The Welfare State Nobody Knows, that I think takes issue with this conclusion. Just too simple. It isn’t that means tested programs are stronger than universal programs. I don’t think anyone would argue that. Rather, I think the literature suggests that many factors affect program’s trajectory, including whether the beneficiaries are viewed as deserving, such as children in the case of children’s health insurance program or the working poor in the case of EITC and some means tested programs have actually been pretty robust in many conditions. The Medicaid program helped save the ACA after all. Millions of people depend on that program and the program also has strong support in many states, from governors, to health insurance industry, hospitals, they built secondary lobbies that have a stake in that program as well.
What I do think is clear from the literature is that eligibility for means tested programs, if you’re going to be means testing, has to be expansive enough that the beneficiary coalition includes the working poor and not just the very poorest people. You might be okay excluding wealthy people, but you want the programs to resonate with the broad working majority of this country. And I think if you do that and the coalition is fairly wide, you have a reasonable chance of durability, even if for other reasons you’ve decided to means test. I think there is some evidence that other things equal, larger programs tend to be more durable than really tiny ones. And you want to try to build a robust constituency that includes people that work, that are active in civic life and more likely to vote.
Matt Grossmann: And good polls now are not necessarily the ticket to sustainability.
Eric Patashnik: I don’t think public opinion polls take it at the time.
Matt Grossmann: Sustainability.
Eric Patashnik: I don’t say public opinion polls taken at the time of passage are extremely reliable indicators of whether programs are going to endure over time. That’s not to say they tell us nothing. I mean, when the ACA was passed, right from the start, people liked the ban on raising premiums for people with pre-existing conditions and they didn’t like the individual mandate. And I don’t think it’s so surprising which one of those provisions lasted. It’s not an accident.
On a highly salient issue like health reform, public opinion, to the extent it’s informed, that might matter to some degree. But, a lot of public policy issues are very complex. They’re not very salient. And oftentimes the public doesn’t have very well-grounded opinions when Congress is considering a law. It takes time for them to see what the actual effects are of the law to experience it on the ground. It makes a difference whether policies are perceived to work or not to work. And the public has to see that.
So, I think public opinion is a factor, but I would tend to discount the explanatory power of public opinion at the moment of passage as a very reliable predictor of a policy’s longterm trajectory. In the long run for sustainability, my sense, based on my research and the research of others, is interest group mobilization, building supportive constituencies, tends to be the most important.
Matt Grossmann: Interest group alignment matters more.
Eric Patashnik: Interest groups, unlike ordinary citizens, they’re very knowledgeable about policy, right? And they’re going to recognize if a policy confers benefits on them or imposes costs. Even if these financial flows are hidden in regulations or the tax code, they’re going to really pay attention to the details.
The clean electricity performance plan, which is part of the Biden agenda, that would provide subsidies to encourage electric utilities to build more clean energy, impose I think some modest penalties on companies that don’t move quickly enough. The main opposition, unsurprisingly, is from utility companies with coal assets, and it’s gotten a frosty reaction from Senator Joe Manchin who represents coal rich West Virginia. We’re going to have to see how that goes, but we’ve already seen interest groups reacting on like the natural gas concern in the electricity. That’s probably going to get in there, right? Because they have powerful advocates, it’s difficult to raise that as a salient issue, why shouldn’t natural gas be part of this environmental reform? That’s a hard one to explain. It’s a great area for interest group influence.
And it’s also going to be important to look at, not only what’s the content of the law when it’s passed, but as a [Aaliyah 00:13:30] Stokes has shown in the environmental area, interest groups that are opposed to environmental laws often are able to water them down after enactment by using the courts, running lobbying campaigns, even selectively mobilizing opinion. A lot of the times the real defeat for the environmental cause comes not when laws are enacted, but afterwards.
Matt Grossmann: Democrats are set up for a tougher time because they’re passing things without Republican support.
Eric Patashnik: I think there is political science evidence that suggests that partisan laws, other things being equal, are more likely to be repeated by future congresses, irrespective of how many lawmakers voted for the bill and the total. This is another nice finding from the [Reguse 00:14:11] and Burkhead study that I mentioned earlier. They’re able to show … They look at all the repealed legislation over time and they find that a bill supported by say, a hundred percent of the majority party, is more likely to be repealed than one supported by 50% of the majority and 50% of the minority.
This is a difficult proposition in a polarized era because a lot of the democratic agenda outside of infrastructure, particularly in social policy, redistributive policy, in the current moment is not going to get Republican support. And there may be nothing that can be done about that given the coalitional structure.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that those bills are not worth pursuing, but I do think there needs to be an awareness that in an age of polarization, if you have a party that lines up against the bill at an enactment, they’re angry about the bill, they don’t like the bill. Well, parties are very good at mobilizing opposition. That’s sort of what they do. And if they stay angry about a bill’s content over time and they return to power, it’s a high probability that they may try to attack the bill. Doesn’t mean they necessarily will succeed, but without any buy-in from the other party, it’s a problem.
Matt Grossmann: Democrats also need to think about state implementation.
Eric Patashnik: I mean, I think there is some recognition now about the need to rely on subsidies and inducements and be leery of federal mandates. We saw that with the individual mandate and the greater recognition that states are not always going to be reliable partners for democratic policy goals in an era of polarization.
A problem, of course, is federalism is like a core feature of the American regime. And it’s often really difficult for the federal government to accomplish its objectives without some kind of state partnership. So, for example, the democratic party’s plan to make community college free would require some states to increase the funding for their own higher education by more than 40%. Federal spending would decline over time. It starts out at 100% the first year, but then I think it goes down 5% a year or something. So, will these states really continue to be a partner in a few years?
It’s the same thing with the universal preschool proposal, where I think, in some of the plans, the federal government covers the full cost for the first couple of years and then scales back until the states are playing 40% or so. Anytime we’re dealing now, I think, with a federal state partnership in this age of polarization, there needs to be a recognition, it seems strange to think, that states might not take some of the sort of free money and they only have to put up part of the cost. But, these policy areas have often become very ideological. There’s a sense sometimes that, even if a policy maybe had support from Republicans at one point in time, once it becomes branded as a democratic policy, it becomes politically difficult to support it.
But Biden still has to satisfy his activist base because they’ll need to stay involved afterwards.
Matt Grossmann: So I do think it matters that the activist base of the party feels good about the bill. At the end of the day, those are the actors that are most likely to be involved in politics, that care the most intensely, that are going to be involved in elections. They’re going to be involved in monitoring the implementation fate of these bills. If the key public interest groups or the environmental groups are not broadly supportive of the bill, it’s going to be a problem because, as we’ve already talked about, these bills or these measures are going to run into post-enacted opposition, some of them, and the need to have strong advocates that will be pushing and pressing and lobbying for those bills. So, I think their buy-in is crucial.
This is really the difficulty of the moment, that Biden is dealing with is … He’s got to sort of worry about his coalition and keeping Manchin on board and Sinema on board. He’s got to get the votes, but he also can’t afford to have the base of the party alienated from the core legislative achievement of his administration.
[Postatric 00:18:01] says visibility of policies does matter, but using the tax code can also be better. Explaining the structure of the Biden tax credit.
Eric Patashnik: The feedback literature does suggest that policies are more likely to generate strong, positive reactions, especially among mass publics, when policies create visible benefits. It makes a difference that people can see, for example social security recipients can see, the impact of that program in their daily lives.
It’s much harder to build a broad coalition around, say, public health regulations that, on the margin, reduce the spread of disease, even though the social impact of those programs may be very great. And it’s clear, we can see just by looking at the cases of policy-making, that there are a lot of fights, not only over the incidents of policy cost and benefits, but over the design of policies and whether people trace back the benefits and costs to particular actions. Policymakers are very aware of that and they do try to manipulate those dimensions of bills, either to highlight the benefits if they’re trying to get credit, or to mask the cost if they’re trying to avoid blame.
And the timing of benefits, I think also matters. We know from a lot of political science research, that people are very focused on the here and now, rather than on the downstream consequences of some government action that was taken in the past. One of the many reasons why the ACA struggled with political sustainability initially is because some of its main benefits didn’t go into effect for the first three or four years. So you had these upfront visible costs. You had the individual mandate. You had some cancellation of existing health insurance plans that were not in compliance with the regulatory structure of the law. Those were like visible costs that people could see. And then like, “What am I getting out of this?” The Medicaid expansion wasn’t in effect right away. The subsidies on the exchanges took a while.
So from a policy feedback standpoint, even though the policy was, say, not as bad as the Medicare catastrophic bill that collapsed of its own weight. It was better than that, but it wasn’t optimally designed to generate strong initial reactions.
A separate issue, analytically, I think it’s the means of program delivery. In the US, we rely a lot on tax expenditures in our welfare state, subsidies for 401k plans, for example, rather than direct government spending. And this approach to social policy making is clearly double edged. On the one hand, people clearly do value these tax preferences. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And a lot of these programs are quite popular. Americans are often thought of as operationally liberal and ideologically conservative and tax expenditures offer a way to generate support for public social provision among the many Americans who hold anti-government attitudes.
It’s a conservative means of delivery to advance kind of liberal policy goals. But on the downside is, as Suzanne Mettler has argued, many of these tax expenditures tend to be regressive. And while people appreciate the benefits, providing them, the fact that we’ve grown our hidden welfare state so much, hasn’t seemed to sort of create an uprising of support for activist government.
So people want to keep their tax expenditures. Sometimes they’re easier to pass. People definitely don’t want them cut if they’re benefiting from them. But the provision of these hasn’t transformed our politics and sort of led to support for more redistributive policies or greater support for activist government.
Matt Grossmann: [Gaston 00:21:33] looks at all the social programs he could find and agrees that their design matters.
Stuart Kasdin: There’s three fundamental processes or systems you could talk about. The three are discretionary spending, mandatory spending that’s like entitlements, and the third are what we call tax expenditures. Discretionary spending is the money that, on an annual basis, Congress appropriates for different programs. There’s committees, appropriation committees, oddly enough are their names, and they get a pot of money and they choose which programs to spend it on. So, how much we want on the national park system, how much we want on defense programs, et cetera. That’s the sort of spending that everyone … I know sometimes we discover, “Oh, Congress didn’t pass an Appropriation Act. We’re going to have a government shutdown.” That’s the spending that everyone’s focused on.
The second type is what we could call mandatory spending. Mandatory spending are those entitlements: Social Security, Medicare. That’s spending where you don’t need to have appropriators, the Appropriation Committees Act. The only thing that has to happen is that Congress has written into permanent law of some kind or another, here are the rules for these programs, who’s eligible, how much we’re going to spend. They write these rules, they pass them in legislation. That then determines how much money people get. In the case of Medicare, if Congress, if the appropriators, just stay home and they don’t appropriate any money, and we have a government shutdown, we still have Medicare being available. That doesn’t change anything. People still get their Social Security checks. That isn’t affected because that works on a different process. That works as a different arrangement.
The last type, that’s two, and that’s Medicare, and so the entitlements were about 62% or so of the budget of spending and the discretionary, the appropriated money is about 30%, which is split roughly evenly between defense related spending and non-defense. The third area, the third category is what one might call tax expenditures. Those are the subsidies, or rather the credits, the deductions, the exclusions, the elements in the tax code that single out particular activities or services. So, if there’s a broad tax cut, everyone gets, instead of one rate, it’s lowered. It doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything in particular. They’re not incentivized to act.
But if you say that this particular industry that we’re going to subsidize, let’s say, electric cars, that means that somebody says, “Oh, I was thinking of getting a car, but because the government is subsidizing it through the tax credit, I’m going to get an electric car.” Well, that works the same as if the government were providing a grant. It has the same effect on people’s behavior. So it acts as if it’s a program and those are referred to as tax expenditures.
Those are the three types of ways that government can spend money. And what I wanted to look at is how do they differ? How is it that programs either last a shorter amount of time or longer amount of time depending on how those programs are funded? Do we see that a program that is funded through discretionary means last shorter or longer than those that are funded through the tax code, the tax expenditures?
The first question was looking at that difference. Accordingly, you know that the shorter amount of time, that means the more money is available for other activities for other purposes. The government is able to be more responsive if there’s a need. Conversely, if programs don’t last long, it means there’s less money available. What I found is that discretionary programs, the ones that have to compete on an annual basis for funding were appropriators get their pot of money and choose, those have the shortest lifespan. Those are more likely to be terminated at any given time as compared to mandatory, the entitlement spending and tax expenditures.
Matt Grossmann: Designing programs through the tax code can work.
Stuart Kasdin: Anything that in essence you can structure in order to rely on the tax code is likely to be safe and/or safer. The first thing is the tax code. The other thing, there was another area, the question of universal versus means tested. We did get a sense, of course, as I mentioned, that programs that were more likely targeted for the poor and more vulnerable. But the other thing is programs that had a dedicated income source, Medicare, Social Security, those programs tended to persist longer. While I didn’t test specifically, does universal treatment versus means tested treatment last longer? It’s go with the universal. If cost is not an issue, you definitely want to go with the universal sorts of things. They’re more likely to be more durable, and especially if you’re using the tax code. But health and income support programs and grants don’t tend to last as long.
Here are other things that I found. Number one, grants, which are fairly often discretionary spending, lasted less time. There are more likely to be terminated than other types of spending. The big, most surprising thing, actually is that programs like income support, Social Security is income support, old programs like that, programs that are defined to provide some sort of welfare assistance or something like that, where people are vulnerable, you would want that to be a little more persistent. And it’s not. Likewise, health. Programs that people want to be able to anticipate and expect, are not. So programs in those categories don’t last as long. Another type of program that you would think would last longer, science, doesn’t. Science is also a type of program that by its nature lasts less time. Those are somewhat surprising. In some ways you would expect that those would last longer. You want people to be able to, in the case of some of the income support and others, to be able to plan, be able to anticipate. Likewise science, you need to be able to anticipate and plan ahead.
Matt Grossmann: There are reasons that policymakers don’t put everything in the tax code but they’re still trying to get credit.
Stuart Kasdin: The opportunity for the President or legislators to get credit for something is greatest with that discretionary spending, because they can do the ribbon cutting. There’s new money every year. That is the best opportunity for you to show your role. Mandatory money because it’s just a check that goes out. It’s less visible than discretionary money. And the least visible, the least where you can get credit as President or other is the tax code. If you remember, then President Trump put on the checks that went out at one point, his name. He signed his name to it, which was unusual, but that’s an attempt to how do I get credit for something that is so invisible, that is so non-transparent. It is hard to get credit for it.
For instance, it comes to the Democrats are clearly anxious about how all of this plays into 2022, especially, or 2024, the elections. Well, passing something that nobody sees is kind of nice, but it’s not as obvious as here’s a bridge. That’s the nice thing about the so-called Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is that that will be your classic credit-claiming opportunity. That will be where they can do ribbon cuttings and name the bridge after someone or whatever it might be, as compared to more money for science. It’s a lot less visible, and they just have to balance those things.
Matt Grossmann: Patashnik says there hasn’t been an obvious backlash yet to the Biden agenda, but one could be coming.
Eric Patashnik: I am working on a new book on the politics of policy backlash in the United States since the 1960s. Backlash is certainly not a new phenomenon. Citizens and organized groups in the US have participated in public and voter and organizational backlashes. Going back to the nation’s founding, we think of the blow back against the Alien and Sedition Act. And of course, the backlash against reconstruction is perhaps the most tragic episode of the 19th century. What I find in my research is that the contemporary moment features an unusually high level of backlash politics that’s refracting partisan conflict, reinforcing the power of vested interests, and reconfiguring the relationships between citizens and government.
As part of my research, I conducted detailed case studies of backlash in key policy areas like healthcare and trade and immigration and gun control, transgender rights. But another thing I did was code articles in the New York times mentioning backlash politics since the 1960s. But what I found is that the 2010s were the most intense period of backlash since the 60s. To be sure there are major differences between these two areas. In the 60s, backlash forces were mainly concentrated in the civil rights arena. But more recently we’ve seen backlash is diffused across the policy state, in immigration, health, trade, many other areas. The federal state, which is much smaller than it was, in the 1960s than it is today, so there were fewer policies for groups to react to. And while society was polarized in the 1960s, the two parties were not as polarized. Democrats, Republicans were more able to find common ground on issues, and many conflicts then occurred within rather than across the parties.
What I find is that the majority of backlash episodes probably unsurprisingly, the ones that do have an ideological direction, the majority of them have been conservative pushing back against the liberal state. Most of the thrust of policymaking in the last several decades has been in a liberal direction. But interestingly, I also find that progressive backlash has increased. We begin to see counter mobilization of voters and groups on the left, beginning in the 80s when Reagan and then the new Gingrich Congress began challenging the durability of some liberal policy accomplishments.
For the most part, they were unable to dismantle the welfare state, unable to stop those great society programs, but there was a perception of threat for the first time, and that led to counter mobilization. Then of course, we saw a lot of progressive backlash during the Trump era, against policies on immigration, efforts to repeal the ACA and other areas. What I find in my study is that a major factor associated with the increase in backlash, its partisan polarization, which has really incentivized actors to make their opponent’s proposals a focal point for counter-mobilization. And I also find that backlash has been a negative feedback effective activist government itself. For example, I find that conservative backlash increases when the amount of liberal laws enacted by Congress rises. So there does seem to be some correspondence between the quantity of policy-making in Washington and counter-mobilization and backlash activity.
I should emphasize that backlash politics, as I define it, it’s not good or bad per se. I mean, the fact that people are upset about policies or they want to write letters, they want to protest, they want to mobilize, that can enhance democratic accountability. It can be a way of keeping policy makers somewhat responsive to public opinion, and try to not continue to implement policies that some people think is really harmful. But at the same time, backlash politics can also undermine the durability of good policies. It can enhance the power of vested interest, of small groups that are unrepresentative of public opinion. And just the threat of backlash can lead to policy timidity and keep beneficial reforms off the agenda.
Matt Grossmann: Biden, however, may be less likely to stimulate a backlash than Obama.
Eric Patashnik: There really has been remarkably little backlash thus far to the Democrats’ legislative program. I think there are several reasons for this. One of them has to do with who’s selling the policy. Biden is an older white man who is less threatening to many citizens than were either Obama or Trump, on the other hand. But I think policy substance matters as well. I find in my research that there are several policy characteristics that tend to increase the probability of backlash, such as the imposition of large near-term losses on groups, threats to social identities, stoking resentment about the provision of benefits to groups that are seen as undeserving, overreaching, where policies are moving in a direction that’s way out of line with public opinion, not representing the views of average citizens. And we haven’t seen that so far.
I’d say that Biden and the Democrats have been pretty careful to avoid those kinds of traps. Many of the provisions of the Build Back Better agenda are popular, much more popular than, for example, Obamacare was, at enactment, more popular than say TARP and some of the bailouts during the Great Recession. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that in addition to backlashes against specific policies, we can also see broad voter backlash just against the general direction of government. And there’s a lot of political science research that suggests that midterm elections display homeostatic feedback. So voters might just decide to vote for liberals after experiencing several years of conservative government, or they might vote for conservatives after a run of liberalism. Voters usually seek to balance ideologically against the party that’s controlling the White House by trimming its seat shares on Capitol Hill.
And so there is a sense that it could be that none of the specific provisions in this reconciliation bill, for example, or the infrastructure bill, are sparking the kind of backlash that some of the policies were in the past. But what we don’t know yet is will there be an overall perception of voters that this is just too much government or it’s too expensive, for example. And I think that’s the big concern with so much media attention focused on the price tag of reconciliation, that it plays into sort of that that ideological conservatism of many Americans, that even if they like programs, they might distrust government, or they might not want government to grow too much. And that is at the moment, the biggest area of concern that I would see for the Biden administration, not the specific proposals, but rather feeding into a sense of sort of too much money being spent, too expensive, governments doing too much.
Matt Grossmann: Kasdin says policymakers are learning the politics, but not necessarily learning to make good policy.
Stuart Kasdin: As far as the lessons on the political side, I think they know those pretty well. How much some of these things are being designed, the choices that are made, are how’s the best way to administer a program independent or irrespective of politics. That part, nah, not so good. The question of how do we get our stuff passed and how do we fit it into a reconciliation target? I think they got that one down. They know the trade-offs. I think they’re going to go with a shorter window. They’ll use the tax code where possible. They’ll do all of those things.
Is it always the ideal design that they’re choosing for administering a program? That’s a different question. It is a real thing to be able to… I mean, there’s real advantages, for instance, a discretionary spending, where if a program’s not working well, you want to be able to eliminate it and perhaps create a new program, or you want to be able to respond to needs in the environment that we want to have more money for job training or this type of environmental response. We want to have a budget that’s responsive and that part gets more lost. There’s a desire to lock money in and protect it and keep it locked away as much as possible and as long as possible. And that isn’t always a good approach.
Matt Grossmann: And Patashnik agrees that good politics doesn’t always make good policy, but political science can help policy makers understand sustainability.
Eric Patashnik: The most important consideration is, do this program solve problems? Do they make people’s lives better? And the reason to gain power and win elections is to actually try to improve things in society. So politics, I think, is really important, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that political sustainability considerations should be part of policy design, but I don’t think it’s more important than program effectiveness or equity or all the other considerations that are more substantive and important. And with my backlash books, I think understanding backlash is important, but I don’t think that policy makers should make the avoidance of backlash the most important objective when they’re making public policy. I do think they should be aware of those risks and they may want to design against them, but that is not the goal. Now, all that said, I do think that political sustainability considerations and feasibility considerations are important, that political science does have something to contribute to the debate.
Political science is not an oxymoron. Actually, we’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years about the conditions under which policies generate positive and negative feedback. We’ve learned a lot about the relationship between the size and partisan composition of enacting coalitions and the post-enacted fate of laws. We’ve learned a lot about the kinds of specific policy moves that are most likely to be visible to ordinary citizens and groups and are most likely to generate negative reactions. There’s actually a lot of knowledge there that I think is available to policy makers that are interested in this research. It’s accessible. Political scientists are always happy to talk to policy makers about ways in which they can accomplish their objectives while also trying to increase the odds that their achievements will last.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you like this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes. When and where can climate policy succeed? How bureaucrats make good policy. Do Democrats and Republicans get different results? How media coverage of Congress limits policy making, and do congressional committees still make policy? And does the tax law signal change in how parties use tax credits and deductions? Thanks to Eric Patashnik and Stuart Kasdin for joining me. Please check out Reforms at Risk and Budgeting Rules and Program Outcomes, and then listen in next time.
Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash