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3 Controlling Policy Change For many programs, a short-term authorization is the mechanism for determining when explicit legislative action will take place and a bill will be enacted—that is, when policy change will occur. In this chapter I develop a conceptualization of short-term authorizations as a mechanism for controlling when legislative activity will occur in Congress. This conceptualization builds on existing literature regarding both agenda setting and congressional committee activity. Although policy scholars often discuss agenda setting and policy, few acknowledge the potential importance of short-term authorizations as a mechanism for controlling when change occurs. Similarly, congressional scholars often discuss the importance of rules, procedures, and institutions in the legislative process, but short-term authorizations have not been a part of this analysis, even though their use is both pervasive and rule-based. Short-term authorizations are a critical indicator for knowing when Congress will actually act on certain policy issues and when members will instead just discuss an issue but not act to change it. A Conceptualization of Short-Term Authorizations as a Control Mechanism Reelection is a primary goal of members of Congress, but achieving this goal requires the existence of certain conditions. For example, Mayhew (1974) and Fenno (1973) both identify several key behaviors that increase the likelihood of members achieving electoral success, in addition to achieving personal and professional success inside the institution. Although there are certain activities that members can do on their own—including giving speeches and introducing legislation—other activities need to be conducted within the context of the legislative process. Members, therefore, need to have regularized and predictable 21 Hall_CH3_3rd.qxd 8/16/2004 4:51 PM Page 21 opportunities to engage in behaviors that benefit them both electorally and professionally, including the crafting of policy, taking positions on key issues, and claiming credit for bringing home projects and programs to their districts and states. A legislative mechanism that can allow members to engage the policy process in a meaningful way on a consistent basis is one that has great benefit to them. Members also need to have a mechanism that allows them to make deals as a part of the legislative process and then to be certain that the gains made from policy trades and bargaining can be protected; that is, once they have engaged in the credit claiming and policy making, they need some assurance that their good works will not be undermined in ways that hinder their future electoral opportunities. As Weingast and Marshall (1988, 135) note,“[T]he institutions of the firm are designed, in part, to reduce the costs of assuring contractual performance.” The question then becomes how to apply these lessons to legislatures. They note that some typical means of securing benefits in a legislature, such as vote trading, are not necessarily stable forms of interaction, arguing that (1988, 138–39), [Vote trading] assumes, for example, that all bills and their payoffs are noted in advance; that is, there are no random or unforeseen future events that may influence outcomes or payoffs. . . . A variety of exchange problems arise because the value of today’s legislation significantly depends on next year’s legislative events. . . . Because current legislators typically cannot bind a future legislative session, problems of enforcement over time are critically important for understanding legislatures and cannot be assumed away. What legislators need, therefore, is a mechanism that binds a future legislative session, affords them regularized opportunities to engage in electorally beneficial activities, and ensures that they can minimize opportunities for other actors to renege on exchanges by changing the legislation containing the policy bargains. Weingast and Marshall implicitly suggest that this can be accomplished, in part, by planning in advance when future legislative action will occur. A mechanism that accomplishes this goal would have two qualities: 1. It would create highly dependable opportunities to engage in legislative activity. 2. It would ensure that any trades made at that time were secure for the duration of the trade; that is, everyone would receive the benefits that were promised before the legislation was again modified. Chapter 3 22 Hall_CH3_3rd.qxd 8/16/2004 4:51 PM Page 22 This description defines the essence of short-term authorizations. It is a mechanism whereby the legislative process for a specific program or policy is opened up for debate at a fixed point in time and, in the same legislation , a date is set for when future debate on the same policy or program will occur again...


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