Monday, April 27, 2020

Iron Triangle: I Was Wrong

Soon after the 2016 election we had lunch with cousins we hadn't met before, and the future under our new president was a topic of conversation.  As a longtime Washington resident I offered my opinion, partly shaped by my experience and partly by my long-ago college education. My government courses had included the concept of the "iron triangle", a congruence of interests among government bureaucrats in an agency, members of Congress with a particular interest in the agency's operations, and lobbyists/NGO's. 

I argued that the iron triangle would limit the amount of change Trump could effect.

I was wrong.  And I think the iron triangle concept is limited.  The iron triangle works fine in situations where the NGO's, Congress and the agency can work together to advance their interests, taking positive action.  I think the concept was developed at a time where you could say the farm lobby, farm Congressmen, and USDA agencies could work together in what was called the "farm bloc".

I think the 3.25 years of the Trump administration have shown bigger change is possible:

  • for many agencies there's deep disagreement among the relevant NGO's and Congressmen--the divide between the "ins" and the "outs" has gotten much bigger, so there's more energy to change direction in EPA, Interior, etc.
  • Congress has given itself new tools, specifically the Congressional Review Act, to reverse agency actions, while SCOTUS seems more and more likely to limit agency discretion.
  • personnel makes a difference.  In the old days, the "ins" and "outs" would alternate and with each having expertise and, to some extent, an indoctrination in agency culture. With the Trump administration there seems to be less of that, perhaps because people (as is the case with foreign policy) reluctant to serve under the President. 
  • the president, through force of personality and unique traits, and lack of experience with governing is willing and able to break old norms.
  • the base of support for the president packs a lot more anger and energy than a president's base usually has.: 

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