Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest Blog: Applying Research to Current Policy Issues

Guest Blog by Greg Weeks, Department of Political Science & Public Administration, UNC Charlotte

One fun part about research is applying scholarly literature to current policy debates to see what analytical leverage you can muster. My area of interest is Latin America, and I’ve always been fascinated by U.S.-Latin American relations.

The policy issue: Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been barraged by criticism that they are ignoring or at least not paying sufficient attention to Latin America (which I blog about frequently). Typically, this is accompanied by a list of the evils that have arisen as a result of said neglect, and cluck-clucking about the disasters that will fall on our heads as a result. Of course, presidents are often battered for ignoring something or other, but this particular criticism has now been going on for years and it also crosses party and ideological lines. In the past fifty years, Republicans would be pleased with policy while Democrats felt the opposite, or vice versa.  Now they’re all unhappy.  Plus, it resonated with my research on immigration, where failure to produce anything more than piecemeal reform has been a reality—and source of discontent--for many years. There have many smiling meetings with Latin American leaders but less advancement in major policy areas.

Presidents Obama and Lula meet under a portrait of Abe Lincoln
So what’s going on? I looked to the literature on legislative activism. For policy toward Latin America and elsewhere, Congress became more assertive in the wake of the Vietnam War. Policy entrepreneurs in Congress sprouted everywhere, taking the lead in a wide variety of policy areas. There is less agreement, though, about to what degree those efforts have been sustained.

Congress has blocked immigration reform, so perhaps it was just blocking other initiatives aimed at Latin America as well. This would mark a real change. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, presidents successfully guided major policy proposals aimed at Latin America—many of them controversial--through Congress. Prominent examples include the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986), the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), Helms-Burton (1996) and Plan Colombia (2000).

I chose four cases: immigration policy, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the “drug war,” and free trade agreements. These policy case studies were chosen with several criteria in mind. First, they were all initiated and pushed hard by presidents. Second, all have generated controversy that entailed a high level of congressional scrutiny. Third, there is variation on the dependent variable, since the subsequent level of legislative activism is different in each case.

The question of “activism” led me to probe into the laws passed from 2001 to the present in each area. Using a variety of keywords, I used the Library of Congress’ THOMAS search engine to find laws, then go into each law to determine how the issue area had been affected. Presidential proposals simply die, and no policy entrepreneur in Congress has been able to pass much of substance either. I’m now in the process of digging more into each of my case studies. Below is a basic sketch:

Start date
Beginning of congressional activism
Means of activism
President able to change policy?
Perception of Policy Goal Attainment?
Ending undocumented immigration
late 1980s
Cuba embargo
Regime change
Late 1980s, early 1990s
Taking control over policy
Drug war
Drastically reducing flow of drugs/violence
n/a (Congressional acquiescence)
Has not been attempted
Free trade
Economic openness
Late 1990s
Mixed results

What I’ve been finding, then, is that legislative activism has increased since 2001, but policy entrepreneurialism has been on the decline. Thus, activism has been aimed primarily at blocking presidential initiatives. It’s not exactly that presidents are “ignoring” Latin America, but congressional dissatisfaction with presidential efforts to change the status quo lead to immobilism and the entrenchment of policies that are not achieving their goals. That in turn leads to a more generalized sense that the president is failing. The drug war is a curious exception, since there is a sense of failure but since no president has tried to change the status quo, there has been no blocking.

There’s more teasing out to do, as I am identifying the “what” more so than the “why.” The aftermath of September 11, 2001 is often cited as a turning point, so it is a natural starting point, albeit in complex ways. The president became more assertive, but Congress also—belatedly—reacted to that. This takes the process of sausage-making to a new level.

[Moderator's note: Dr. Weeks is professor of political science at UNC Charlotte and chair of the department. His areas of study include Latin American politics, U.S.-Latin American relations, and Latin American immigration to the United States.  He is also the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist. He is past president of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS). His regular blog is Two Weeks Notice ]

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