Policy Subsystems Iron Triangles and Subgovernments Compared to Issue Networks and Advocacy Coalitions Research Paper

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Beyond Separation of Powers

As high school students we all learned about the Constitutional separation of powers. With each of the three branches of government -- the judicial, executive, and legislative -- having the power to limit the power of the others, no one aspect of government could hold the American people hostage. This was the structure that the Framers put into effect to ensure that Americans would have an efficient, but humane, system of government. It was also, from its inception, an idealistic one. Indeed, perhaps too idealistic, for while it is good for democracy to have power divided among many rather than only a few, it is in human nature to want to concentrate power within oneself.

Thus over the over two-and-a-quarter- centuries of our nation's history, people have devised various extra-Constitutional methods for accumulating power. This paper examines three different ways in which individuals and political and interest groups have accrued power for themselves within American public life. Focusing on the decades since 1980, when Ronald Reagan began his first term as president, I will assess which of the three political strategies best explains American policymaking and polity.

These three political strategies that I will be examining in this paper are the iron triangle, the subgovernment, and policy subsystems. I will begin with a brief definition of each of these three before analyzing the ways in which these models fit the ways in which the American political scene has been organized over the past several administrations.

The Iron Triangle

The concept of the iron triangle is one that is familiar to most Americans, although the term itself may well not be. The "military-industrial complex" -- the phrase was made famous by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell speech -- is an example of an iron triangle. In the United States, the Congress is the federal legislative branch, of course. But this formal way of understanding its power is only one way of defining or categorizing the way that Congress works. For Congress also holds tremendous bureaucratic power, something that tends to be overlooked in the greater focus on its more purely political (i.e. law-making) functions.

It is important to define the concept of bureaucratic power as well, for the term as it is used by political scientists and within this paper is related to but not precisely the same as the way in which it is used in everyday speech. The common definition of bureaucracy -- and this is especially true in this day of the rising popularity of the Tea Party -- is that bureaucracy is a bad thing. Bureaucracy (and bureaucrats) are often held up as if they were inherently undemocratic and purposefully antagonistic, something that stands in the way of the rights of citizens.

While this definition of bureaucracy may be true in specific circumstances (and in my own experience this is in fact not the case), is has a more specific and much more neutral meaning. In technical terms, a bureaucracy is simply the combined rules or regulations along with formalized procedures and methodologies that determine how an organization functions. Bureaucracies tend to be instituted only in larger organizations because less formal methods of organizing work tends to be sufficient in smaller groups. (For example, a surgical team performing a multiple-organ transplant must have established procedures while a family of four planning a picnic can easily do things on an ad hoc basis.) Bureaucracies also tend to be marked by a formal division of labor.

So, in the above example, surgical nurses perform certain designated tasks, anesthesiologists other jobs, surgeons still others, while facilities managers ensure that the lights, air conditioning or heating, and plumbing works. Bureaucracies are also generally marked by formal hierarchies: Surgeons outrank nurses, for example, but must cede to the expertise of anesthesiologists in some areas. (Ad hoc organizations can have forms of hierarchies as well, of course, but while parents outrank children in some sense, they cannot fire their children and fire new ones.)

Most people are familiar with Congress -- to the extent that they are familiar with it at all -- only as an elected body that makes political decisions through the mechanism of floor votes that are sometimes featured on CNN. But, while this is of course an important part of the way in which Congress wields its power, it exercises a far greater power through its control of
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the bureaucratic mechanisms of the federal government. The committees and subcommittees of both houses of Congress have authority (through both legislative and purse-string power) over federal departments, agencies, and government contractors, and this bureaucratic power is extremely potent indeed. Interest groups both importune and pressure members of Congress to act in ways that benefit them.

An example will make this clearer. A defense contractor like Lockheed Martin wants to receive a Department of Defense contract for a new electronic system. The chairs of the relevant Congressional committees and subcommittees are not amenable to provide funding for the electronic system because it seems to duplicate systems already in use for a higher price. During the next election cycle, Lockheed Martin contributes money to candidates who will look more kindly on its merchandise. When these candidates are elected, they vote to fund the new system and put pressure through the budgetary process on the Department of Defense to accept the contract.

Although the contracting process is supposed to be independent of such Congressional pressure, this is more true in the ideal than the actual, and Lockheed Martin receives the contract. The company, through its contributions to candidates and PACs helps keep these legislators in office and everyone -- the contractors, the legislators, and the bureaucrats at the Department of Defense become cozier and cozier. The special interests can come to have significant power over legislators through campaign contributions as well as the promise of offering well-paid lobbying positions to legislators once they leave public service.

Agencies and departments can also gain power over legislators if they gain the loyalty of special interests who then use their power and/or money to help keep legislators in office -- or help replace them with more easily influenced legislators. (I should note that I have only chosen Lockheed Martin here as an example of a major governmental contractor; I do not mean to suggest that they act in a way that is any more unethical than is the norm.) The coziness of such iron triangle relationships can result in governmental money, influence, and power being used to benefit those people occupying the three corners of the triangle rather than the American people as a whole.

While such triads of legislators, special interests, and bureaucracies do not necessarily have to be detrimental in their effects on the fiber of American democracy, they can in fact be quite malignant. This malignancy is especially likely to evidence itself in bureaucrats failing to regulate the special interests over whom they are supposed to exercise oversight, such as a Department of Defense that does not provide sufficient protective paneling for convey vehicles, an Environment Protection Agency that allows power plants to keep burning coal in highly polluting ways, or a Department of Health and Human Services that caters to anti-abortion groups by legitimizing research that draws false connections between abortion and breast cancer.

This especially pernicious consequence of an iron triangle -- in which a governmental regulatory agency serves not the public weal but the special interests that it was created to oversee -- is called "regulatory capture." Arguably, such "captured agencies" do more harm than would be the case if there were no regulatory agency at all. The general public is likely to be unaware that agencies have been "captured" and so will assume that the agency is in fact doing its job. If there were no agency at all, on the other hand, the public would be more likely to be aware of the absence of a regulatory body. In such a case, that is, in the absence of any formal regulatory mechanisms, individual citizens might create informal watchdog groups that would serve roughly the same function.

Eisenhower saw the potential problems of the iron triangle with terrible prescience. His farewell speech (taken from the Public Papers of the Presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960, p. 1035- 1040) precisely limned the undue influences that can arise in such a relationship:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced…

Sources Used in Documents:


deHaven-Smith, L & Van Horn, C. (2005). Subgovernment conflict in public policy. Policy studies journal 12(4): 627-642.

Frank, T. ( 24 June 2009). Obama and 'regulatory capture'.


Jones, M. & Jenkins-Smith, H. (2009). Trans-subsystem dynamics: Policy topography, mass opinion, and policy change. The policy studies journal 37(1).

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