Garbage Can Politics

This is a guest post by Bryan Jones, J.J. “Jake” Pickle Regent’s Chair in Congressional Studies at the University of Texas at Austin:

A number of years ago, Michael Cohen, James March, Johan Olsen and later John Kingdon developed what they called the garbage can model of policy choice.   A major implication of the approach is that policy problems and policy solutions are to a considerable extent independent.   As happens quite often, solutions offered to a salient problem are not related to solving the problem; rather proponents of a policy press for its adoption as a solution to a more-or-less unrelated problem.  ‘Solutions seeking problems’ is the most likely explanation for the invasion of Iraq as a ‘solution’ to the terrorism problem of 9/11.

The Republican Garbage Can Gambit.  But garbage can politics also characterizes the current Great Debt Dispute.  Take the Republicans’ opening gambit in the debt discussions.   For some time, the problem of growing government debt has become increasingly salient.   Recognizing an opportunity, Republicans put forward an ambitious set of proposals (the “Ryan plan”) that did less to address the debt issue and more to transform entitlement programs.  Standing alone, the entitlement reform part of the Ryan plan did address the debt problem, but Republicans paired the reform program with an equally ambitious tax-cutting plan.   This made it fundamentally a ‘shrink government’ plan rather than a debt-limiting plan—a solution to large government attached to a real but now only tangentially-related problem, growing government indebtedness.

Their next step: link entitlement reform to raising the debt limit, basically imposing a negotiating deadline.   This insures heightened collective attention to the issue, making it more likely that the proffered solution would be considered.  Their final step: make a credible commitment to ensure that the solution will not be bargained away in the decision-making process.  Make a public commitment publically not to budge from the cut-only, no revenue increase strategy by signing Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge.  Claim a mandate from the election. Repeat loudly and publically the mantra that taxing the rich is taxing ‘job creators’ regardless of the evidence.

Obama’s Defense.  There is an effective counter to the garbage-can strategy: expose it.   But it is not enough simply to cry ‘foul’.  Just as the connection of a solution to an unrelated problem requires that people pay attention to both the problem and the proposed solution simultaneously, countering the gambit also requires attention to the counter-strategy.   It also requires that the solution really address the problem.  President Obama’s recognized the Republican gambit and upped the ante.  He proposed a very forceful (‘game changing’) deficit reduction plan that relied most heavily on spending cuts, but also required revenue-raising entirely through what is termed ‘closing loopholes’ in the tax code (the so-called $4 trillion option).

In many ways, for Obama this was an enormous gamble.  If Republicans took the deal, he ran the risk, in the eyes of many Democrats, of being weak once again in his negotiations with the Republicans.   But it could have strong policy benefits— a credible plan for dealing with the debt issue that did not rely overly on short-term budget cuts.

It is likely that Speaker John Boehner recognized the counter-gambit, pushed Obama hard on the specifics of the plan, and hoped to walk away with what most observers viewed as a winning hand.  For Republicans, there were potential dual gains: a favorable policy involving primarily a commitment to spending control, and a political victory—making Obama seem weak and replaceable in the minds of Americans.

Folding a winning hand. At that point, Boehner probably understood that the realm of potential outcomes had shrunk to two: take the deal, or surrender to Obama and pass a ‘clean’ debt limit increase.  He wanted to play through his winning hand, but he had to contend with one other problem in policy choice: becoming overly attached to your solution (which Lynn Bachelor and I have termed “solution set.” Republicans have become overly enamored with tax cutting as a ‘starve the beast’ strategy, and Obama’s proposal required Republicans to move beyond their solution set problem.   When it became clear that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the more radical House Republicans could not do that, Republicans folded their winning hand.

The Dénouement. Savvy Republicans are fast recognizing the problem they face: unable to get their right wing to accept a win, they must fall back on a orderly retreat that contains as much in the way of face-saving as they can muster.   “We only have ourselves to blame,” noted Senator Lindsay Graham.

It is always possible that Obama will capitulate to a ‘cuts only’ strategy, but that is (and probably always was) highly unlikely.   Indeed, he has increasingly bound himself to a ‘balanced plan’, including spending cuts and revenue increases, an option that polls extremely well among Americans.  It has dawned on Republicans, and on Democrats as well, that Obama’s victory is more likely to be a rout than a Democratic surrender.  The best Republicans can hope for, absent a change of mind among their radical wing, is to be blamed for playing games while the economy deteriorated.   Plus the party is likely to suffer internal discord as the garbage can gambit unravels.

But it could be much worse: should default occur, Obama’s defense to the Republican’s garbage can gambit has also probably inoculated him against the charge that he caused the default (but see John’s earlier post).

Moral: If you want to play in the garbage can, be sure you have an exit strategy lest you end up in the city dump.

8 Responses to Garbage Can Politics

  1. kerokan July 18, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Your account reminds me of the bargaining games with commitment in the IR literature. When negotiation breakdown (“default” in the current episode) is the least desirable outcome, both sides have an incentive to commit themselves to their position, so that their opponent will be forced to choose between conceding and causing breakdown. Stoking a radical-wing interest in the issue is a good commitment device for the Republicans but it may also preclude their ability to give in at the last moment if they feel that the Democrats will not blink. However, if there was an exit strategy, then the Democrats would never take Republicans’ commitment device seriously.

    The important thing is, having an “exit strategy” weakens the commitment device and its effectiveness. The possibility of breakdown is a necessary and unfortunate part of the commitment device.

  2. Dave July 18, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Would last year’s health care reform bill, which was supposedly an essential ingredient to economic recovery, also fall under the label of garbage can politics?

  3. Jason July 18, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    I am not sure of anyone who made the argument that ACA was an economic recovery policy …

  4. David Littleboy July 18, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    Your story understates the essential sleaziness of “garbage can politics”. It’s not that there’s a solution lying around that people want to try for the fun of it, it’s that there’s a goal that they really really want (e.g. destroying the welfare state) that can be achieved as a side effect of a solution to a problem they don’t give a rat’s arse about (the deficit). I think that GWB had two goals in Iraq: he hated Hussein to an essentially irrational extent (interestingly, as did Ms. Albright during the Clinton administration) and he (along with the rest of the right) hate it that we “lost” the Vietnam war (I’d say that the guys who were the legitimate representatives of the vast majority of the Vietnamese people won) and he really wanted to be the president who won the first US war since WWII. He didn’t give a rat’s arse about terrorism or bin Laden (witness his half-hearted efforts in Afghanistan), but he really really wanted to beat Hussein. And while the idea of a democratic Iraq as a US policy goal is stupid* beyond words (Iraq is a Shia-majority nation whose leaders were all supported in exile in Iran), I think that GWB really was too stupid to see that.

    So I’m not convinced that “garbage can politics” is anything other than simply generic Machiavallian sleaze.

    *: Assuming you buy the idea that Iran are bad guys. That’s a long other discussion, though, so for the nonce, I’m assuming that more friends for Iran is bad for US policy goals.

  5. Bryan Jones July 19, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    In response to Dave–I guess I’d say that everything is not ‘garbage can politics’–looks more to me like ‘taking your eye off the ball’. Still boundedly rational politics to me.

    I think maybe David Littleboy is attributing too much in the way of cynical manipulation on the part of political elites. The ability to delude oneself is pretty basic to homo politicus. Most interestingly to me, as a student of policy agendas, is the critical role that the collective focusing of attention plays in policymaking. Why we talk about one issue and not another has fascinated me for a quarter of a century, and truth be told, I still puzzle over it.

  6. Mike Folsom July 19, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    I’m curious how you square this statement:
    “It is always possible that Obama will capitulate to a ‘cuts only’ strategy, but that is (and probably always was) highly unlikely. Indeed, he has increasingly bound himself to a ‘balanced plan’, including spending cuts and revenue increases, an option that polls extremely well among Americans. “

    with the fact that people are now talking about the McConnell-Reid Plan, which involves all cuts and no revenue increases – your definition of a ‘cuts only’ strategy, as the only game in town?

    Looks to me that Obama is about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory you suggest and create a situation where he will be nickel and dimed to death with never ending cuts and no revenue increase in sight.

  7. Bryan Jones July 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Maybe, Mike, but it could depend on the cuts.

    But from a public policy standpoint, there is little doubt that a package of cuts and revenues could change the fiscal policy dynamics, especially given the role that previous tax cuts have had in creating the problem, whereas cuts only (especially with no entitlement reform) will not.