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  • Policy and Reform
  • Andrea Louise Campbell (bio)
Review of Eric M. Patashnik's Reforms at Risk: What Happens After Major Policy Changes Are Enacted. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Political scientists have devoted much attention, with good cause, to the enactment of general-interest reforms. These are reforms that involve "non-incremental change of an existing line of policymaking intended to rationalize governmental undertakings or to distribute benefits to some broad constituency" (2; italics in the original). Reforms like transportation deregulation and sulfur dioxide (acid rain) emissions trading pose real puzzles, because they defy the norm in policymaking in imposing change that is nonincremental and that achieves benefits for a broad constituency, exactly the kind of constituency that often fares poorly in a governmental system typically more permeable to organized interests. How such reforms have been achieved is the subject of important work by scholars such as Douglas Arnold, David Mayhew, and Martha Derthick and Paul Quirk. In this marvelous book, Eric Patashnik takes on a crucial question long neglected by policy scholars: What happens after such reforms are passed? Which general-interest reforms are successfully sustained, and why? He examines case studies of agriculture reform, tax reform, pension and health reform, government procurement reform, airline deregulation, and emissions trading to elucidate the conditions under which reforms prove durable. In doing so, he produces not only a helpful primer for policy entrepreneurs on how to design reforms with self-reinforcing features, but also a fine-grained scholarly analysis of the limits of previous work on policymaking. It is an instant classic that will be widely read by practitioners and scholars alike.

Patashnik's contribution begins by pointing out that the factors that secure general-interest reforms in the first place do not guarantee sustainability. Many of the factors that come together in an epiphenomenal way to facilitate reform afterward quickly revert to their prereform status and cannot help to sustain reform in the long term. The attention of the public and the media shifts to other new issues; watchdog groups stop watching; "bought" [End Page 256] groups do not stay bought; Congress ignores rules it set for itself, and, perhaps most perniciously, remains permeable to opposing interests, who, if they are still around, will come back to try to pick apart the reform. Indeed, Patashnik concludes that some of the factors that facilitate reform actually undermine sustainability. The side payments often needed to help secure reform increase "skepticism" about its long-term fate. Similarly, "midcourse policy corrections" are sometimes needed to achieve reform, but the more interventionist government is, the greater the possibilities for political manipulation and the unraveling of reform.

Three factors help reforms persist. First, perhaps least surprising for political scientists, are changes in political structures. Reforms are more sustainable when they undermine preexisting cozy-triangle relationships among interest groups, lawmakers, and executive agencies that had an interest in the status quo; when political transaction costs are raised or lowered to make "doing the right thing" and maintaining the reform regime easier; and when political venues change to sites where reform coalitions have greater access. In short, reforms are more likely to prove durable when the political structures that favored the status quo are replaced by those that favor the reform coalition. Nonetheless, a mere change in political structures is rarely enough to secure policy "lock-in." And, as social scientists who study policymaking know all too well, much of politics is a repeat game, in which losers in one round often return to fight again.

Hence, a second characteristic of durable policy reforms: engagement in what Patashnik terms "creative destruction." Unless the particular constellation of factors that facilitated reform in the first instance remain in place over the long term—highly unlikely—it is entirely possible that losers will return in later rounds of policymaking and chip away at the reform or even overturn it altogether. The novel point that Patashnik makes is that while political losers are seldom eliminated, economic losers may be. The nature of market competition is such that entities on the losing side—such as airlines that went out of business after deregulation—may simply cease to exist, removing one important antireform force entirely...


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pp. 256-261
Launched on MUSE
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