Archive | Policy

Environmental and Healthcare Reform: Thoughts From Someone who Teaches Intro to Comparative Politics

As both the cap and trade and health care debates have played out in recent months, I’ve found myself thinking about the effect of our presidential, single-member district system of government on the ultimate policies that are going to emerge from this process. We have heard again and again that the reason we are not getting the “best” policies – especially in the cap and trade debate – is because of the need to buy off individual legislatures who have particular constituencies that they need to satisfy. The results, many fear, will be less effective policies than we might have had. Theoretically, if we had a parliamentary system of government in this country using a proportional representation national list system for electing the Congress, we shouldn’t run into these problems. A government elected with a large popular mandate should be able to come into office and implements its preferred policies, which, without the need to buy off individual legislators, should lead to ultimately “better” bills.

As this is far from my own research area, I wanted to throw out the question to readers of the Monkey Cage: is there any research out there on this topic? Do we have any sense of whether parliamentary/PR systems tend to produce “better” large scale policy reforms than countries with presidential systems of government and single-member districts for electing legislators? Is either healthcare reform or environmental reform more likely to occur at all in such systems? Keeping in mind the Monkey Cage’s mission of bringing political science to ongoing policy debates, this might be very interesting information from framing the current policy debates going on in the United States.

A quick look at Google Scholar revealed a review article by Jacob Hacker from five years ago in the British Journal of Political Science (gated), but I would be interested in learning about other work on the relationship between large scale institutional factors and major policy reforms. Here’s the abstract from Hacker’s article:

This article examines the recent pattern and progress of health care reform in affluent democracies, focusing in particular on Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. Its main contention is that efforts to reform health care in advanced industrial states have been marked by a paradoxical pattern of ‘reform without change and change without reform’, in which large-scale structural reforms have had surprisingly modest effects yet major ground-level shifts have, nonetheless, frequently occurred as a result of decentralized adjustments to cost control. The main task of the article is to investigate the reasons for and effects of this puzzling pattern by plumbing the largely unexplored theoretical territory between comparative health policy analysis and cross-national research on the welfare state. Along the way, the article develops a simple model of the politics of reform that helps explain cross-national variation in legislative and policy outcomes – particularly outcomes that occur through decentralized processes of internal policy ‘conversion’ and policy ‘drift’, rather than through formal legislative reform. It also takes up a number of other intriguing issues raised by recent trends: why, for example, market reforms are clustered in centralized political and medical frameworks; why these reforms have generally enhanced state authority rather than market autonomy; why, despite fragmentation, decentralized political and medical systems shifted towards an expanded government role; and why significant retrenchment of the public-private structure of health benefits occurred in the United States.
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The Key to a Regional Transportation Policy

Every morning, my local public radio station’s traffic report spans hundreds of square miles. And it is always grim, with serious back-ups and slowdowns (on I-66, I-270, I-495) by 6 am. So Washington DC and its environs have some interest in a regional transportation policy. Which ain’t exactly easy to come by. See the debate over extending Metro to Dulles, for example. What to do?

Public policy decisions are increasingly made by regional governance efforts that involve diverse decision makers from multiple government units within a geographic region. These decision-making bodies face competing pressures to represent regional and local interests. We study how decision makers balance preferences for regionalism and localism within metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), the policymaking entities that are responsible for implementing U.S. federal surface transportation policy at the regional level.

That’s from a newly published paper by Elisabeth Gerber and Clark Gibson (gated; ungated). Gerber and Gibson describe the “underlying political dilemma associated with regional governance”:

…local actors must give up public authority to achieve regional coordination.

So what’s the solution? Staff the metropolitan planning organization with people not beholden to local interests:

Analyzing data from a sample of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, we find that MPOs dominated by elected officials produce more locally focused policies, holding other factors constant, while MPOs dominated by nonelected public managers produce more regionally oriented policies.

I can’t help but note that on the Metropolitan Washington Transportation Planning Board, elected officials outnumber non-elected officials by about 2-1. Would the local traffic report be a little sunnier if this ratio was reversed?

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Everything You Knew about Congressional Earmarks is Wrong


Well, okay, maybe you—being a “Monkey Cage” reader and therefore an intelligent and well informed person—knew better, but not most people. Here’s what they think:

Earmarks are the motor driving large budget deficits.
Using omnibus legislation instead of regular orders is the real culprit.
“Airdropped” earmarks (those added at the conference stage) are a major problem.

Those are among the three most common bits of conventional wisdom concerning earmarks (though the first one has probably gotten less conventional since Barack Obama so frequently disputed it during his campaign debates with John McCain.) According to Michael H. Crespin, Charles J. Finocchiaro, and Emily O. Wanless, all three of these widely held beliefs are wrong. In the just-released issue of the Berkeley Electronic Press’ Forum, they argue that:

1. Pork barrel spending is a drop in the budgetary bucket. Using data assembled by Citizens Against Government Waste, they show that total federal spending in 2008 due to earmarks was $17.2 billion, compared with discretionary spending (set annually by Congress) of approximately $1.1 trillion, entitlement spending (required by law) of more than $1.5 trillion, and spending on interest of more than $240 billion. Since 2000, pork spending has remained fairly even, while spending in other categories (e.g., defense, medicare/social security) has risen appreciably. Thus, “while increasing levels of pork may be symptomatic of a larger government spending problem, they are not the underlying cause.”

2. Although it just makes sense to blame omnibus appropriations bills for pork (because legislators can hide favored projects and secure approval from others who are doing the same thing, and they don’t have to worry much about getting overridden at higher levels), when all appropriations bills, bill-by-bill and over time, 1997-2008, are examined it turns out that the amount of earmarked money depends very little on whether the bill was part of an omnibus package or not.

3. Although last-second, secretive air-drops are supposed to be a big problem (because they happen behind the scenes without public scrutiny or legislative hearings and add so much to the total bill), the data don’t provide much support for this idea. On average, just 16% of total pork spending has been added at the conference stage. “However reckless the practice, our results suggest it is misguided to blame conference committees for the amount of pork barrel spending – the individual committees in the respective chambers are responsible for the bulk of the earmarks.”

Many earmarks are easy targets of criticism, e.g., the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” or a $3 million appropriation for a study of bear DNA, as is the entire practice of earmarking, irrespective of the quality (or lack thereof) of the projects that are funding. In reality, though, earmarks are no more than a minor sideshow operating on the fringes of the enormous carnival of the appropriations process. There is considerable irony, then, in watching many of the same members of Congress who posture most vehemently against the rampant waste of earmarks scramble to assert their support for big-bucks defense projects that the Department of Defense itself opposes – projects that in many cases would pour federal dollars into (quelle surprise!) the states they themselves represent. Sounds kinda like pork barrel, doesn’t it?

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The Uptick in Standardized Test Scores in the Nation’s Capital: Less than Meets the Eye (A Rant)

Institutions respond in myriad ways to mandates to provide quantitative evidence of performance improvement. Sometimes they actually try to improve performance itself. Their first line of defense, though, often consists of taking steps that make everything, themselves included, look better irrespective of whether any real improvement has taken place.

For example, the university from which I draw my paycheck wants to move up in the US News ratings. So one thing it does is look very closely at the criteria US News uses and try to game them. US News takes points off for class sizes above 20? Easy! We’ll cap enrollments at 19 in classes that had typically enrolled 21 to 25 students, and herd the excluded students into classes that were way above 20 in the first place.

Keep that in mind as I tell you about much-ballyhooed recent improvements in the DC school system.

DC has a bright, energetic, attractive, ambitious, smooth, omnipresent, self-promoter of a mayor, Adrian Fenty. Shortly after he was elected, Fenty cloned himself by hiring the bright, energetic, ambitious, attractive, ambitious, smooth, omnipresent, etc., Michelle Rhee to be chancellor of the horrendous DC public school system. Both preached reform, and Rhee was given near-dictatorial powers to make change happen. She fired principals willy-nilly and closed underperforming schools at will. It seems like every day, there are Fenty and Rhee, smiling for the cameras, making some new announcement of the educational reform du jour.

Fine. As Lenin is said to have said, “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” And Fenty and Rhee are hardly the only publicity hounds in the politics business.

Last week, Fenty announced that standardized test scores in the District were way up – good news at long last! “Powerful evidence of the incredible work being done by teachers, principals, and most importantly our students” (and, of course, by Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee). This was great stuff – a story about the DC schools so unusual (because it was positive) as to be of “man bites dog” or “bull throws congressman” proportions. All that adoring media coverage must have been right – the long-awaited progress was finally happening!

Well, maybe not. In today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque details how those DC test scores rose.

Students who had been close to scoring at a level that would be counted as indicating proficiency were given special tutoring designed to inch them over the proficiency hurdle – a step that Turque quotes one teacher (who belongs to a group that opposes some of Rhee’s programs) describing as being “less about serving children and more about make the adults who run the school system look good. … There are students in my classes who are struggling with basics, and yet we’re pouring all of this money into a program not just focused on tests, but on tests for a few students so the scores will look good.”
The school system’s databases were reorganized, which resulted in dropping some students (apparently bottom-feeders in terms of academic achievement) from the ranks of those who had to be tested.
Failure was redefined. In earlier years, students who didn’t take the test were counted as failures. Starting in this year, those students were treated as missing data, not failures.
Taking advantage of the fact that after a few years of standardized testing, teachers generally improve at “teaching to the test” and students’ test-taking skills improve, too.

Rhee herself describes these strategems as the pursuit of low-hanging fruit and says she’s “very excited about next year.”

Hip, hip, hooray for performance measurement. Things are going so well in the DC school system!

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Smaller and more frequent buses, please

The other day while waiting for a bus, I was thinking about how city buses should be smaller and run more frequently. Instead of a 40-seater every 15 minutes, they could run a 10-seater every 5 minutes. (More precisely, they could run as frequently as necessary during rush hour to handle all the passengers—a bus a minute if necessary—but more spaced out at other times. For example, on weekend mornings the bus is never crowded, so they could run the much smaller buses with just slightly higher frequencies than they currently run big buses now.)

The advantages of my proposal are clear: the bus comes more frequently, also since the lag time is smaller, loading and unloading won’t take so much time, and as an extra bonus, you’ll probably skip a lot more stops because there are fewer people on the bus who might want to get off at any particular point. Also, I don’t know about fuel efficiency, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the fuel cost per passenger is lower because you’re not having to run these huge empty buses in off-peak hours. Finally, van-sized buses could maneuver better in traffic.

The only additional cost that I see is having to hire more bus drivers, but with unemployment at 9%, I don’t think it would be hard to find people to do this. What really irritates me are those huge, huge buses that take forever to fill up and take about a half hour just to go a few crosstown blocks. If they were broken up into vans, the wait would be less and the ride much more pleasant.

P.S. Yes, I know this isn’t one of the world’s most important problems. But it is a big expenditure, so why not try to do it right?

P.P.S. I’m sure there’s lots of research on this topic but it’s not something I’m at all informed on. The above are just my personal impressions.

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