The politics of making and executing public policy

By Tracy Osborn

At the University of Iowa Public Policy Center (PPC), our goal is to inform policy makers and the public about how our research at the UI in a number of areas — for instance, health, the environment, and education — can help the U.S. to make better public policy choices. In this election season, it would probably come as no surprise to most Americans that one particular area in which research might help public policy is politics itself.

The Constitution in the National Archives.

The way we “do” politics in the U.S., both at the federal and state levels, is by no means a static process. For example, the U.S. Constitution originally called for state legislatures to choose U.S. Senators. The Founders (those guys who wrote the Constitution) thought that this process would insulate senators from swings in public opinion and help to ensure that only the most educated and erudite among us would serve in the upper house of Congress. However, by the late 1800s, the selection process for the U.S. Senate was rife with allegations of corruption and state legislative fights over the selection process. Ordinary citizens balked at the notion that they had no direct say in Senate elections. Eventually, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution shifted the election of senators to the popular vote in 1913.

This change in election procedure was not necessarily straightforward. Like the Federalist and Anti-Federalist debate over the ratification of the Constitution itself, both sides of the 17th Amendment debate put forward claims about the consequences of this change in policy. As we still debate changes in political processes today — redistricting, voter ID laws, and more — public policy research informs these debates.

Thus, beginning in the 2016 general election season, this blog will address these debates by highlighting how research at the UI Public Policy Center informs the politics of making and executing public policy. Some of our entries concern public policies about politics itself. For example, Fred Boehmke will discuss how changes in the rules of the initiative process (the process whereby voters decide policy in a state or locality directly on a ballot) affect how often the initiative process is used. Other entries will detail how politics affects the implementation of policy; for instance, Kajsa Dalrymple will discuss how bureaucratic politics shapes the kinds of information released to the public about health epidemics like Zika. Still other entries will shine a spotlight on election events around campus in which voters can learn about the interaction between politics and policy. Caroline Tolbert will summarize a panel of experts on the 2016 election, and Ty Priest will focus on the visit of Jay Hakes, formerly of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, to the UI campus.

Other entries will address how variation in who participates in government shapes public policy outcomes. In all, these entries will introduce the work of the researchers in the Politics and Policy Research Program of the PPC, and how their work can instruct us about the interaction between politics and policy. Even beyond the 2016 election, questions of how the U.S. makes decisions about elections, and how those elections affect policy, matter greatly to many researchers.

Tracy Osborn is the director of the Politics and Policy Research Program at the University of Iowa Public Policy Center and associate professor in the Department of Political Science. Her research focuses on women, politics, and public policy in the U.S. state legislatures and Congress, women’s political behavior, and gendered violence. Learn more about Osborn and her work here.