Many a Slip ‘Twixt Cup and Lip

May 3 '12

A couple of today’s headlines remind us that we need to pay attention not just to the ballyhoo when laws are passed but to the difficulties of turning statute into tangible reality. The 2010 food safety law extending the reach of the Food and Drug Administration is stalled in the process of regulatory review at OMB – a process tentatively begun by President Nixon, revamped by President Reagan, and maintained by all presidents since, in an effort to ensure that departmental regulations reflect presidential preferences.

And the lengthy efforts to specify the tenets of the so-called Volcker Rule dealing with banks’ proprietary trading (part of the Dodd-Frank law) stands as a poster child for how an ostensibly simple idea can be extraordinarily difficult to put into workable practice.

I’ve recently written about some of the ways the American system shapes implementation, with special regard to education policy, in a piece for Education Week. It centers on the idea that the types of policy that are most readily implemented come down to two basic forms: bribery, and blackmail. More here.

The titular proverb, by the way, apparently has its roots in a story about a returning Argonaut – who had been told by a local soothsayer that he would never again get to drink his vineyard’s wine. Returning home from his travels with Jason, the Argonaut summoned the soothsayer to offer a mocking toast. But before he could take a sip, he was called away to deal with a rampaging wild boar – which killed him.

So, don’t mess with soothsayers, and don’t take implementation for granted.