Martha Derthick’s legacy

by Paul Nolette, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Marquette University 

As my colleague Julia Azari remarked to me, it’s been a rough month for political science. In December, the discipline lost two of its pioneering scholars in Maurice Duverger and Philip Converse. Now comes news that one of our foremost scholars of federalism and public policy, Martha Derthick, has died. Derthick’s contributions were numerous and varied, including crucial insights into American intergovernmental relations, administration, and the regulatory state. While much political science scholarship focuses on the moment of policy enactment, Derthick had a keen interest in the intricacies of policy implementation. This drew her attention to where so much of the action is in contemporary American politics – in the trenches of the bureaucracy and in the nitty-gritty details of the process following policy adoption.

A hallmark of Derthick’s work was her recognition that politics is best understood not as a series of snapshots but as a complex process that unfolds over time. One of her great talents was to grasp this complexity and use it to engage with larger questions of American democracy. She was one of the best at exploring, for example, how the insights of Hamilton or Madison operate in the contemporary world of grants-in-aid, unfunded mandates, and administrative rulemaking.

Derthick appreciated that the complexity of contemporary politics required close attention to the dynamics of interbranch relationships. Her magisterial studies of Social Security, for example, illustrated that while social policy is made for many reasons, rarely do policymakers concern themselves with pesky details of administration. Presidents aiming to leave a legacy seek grand policy innovations without thinking about the practicalities for policy implementation. Legislators, so often seeking to claim credit for new policies while shifting the costs of those policies elsewhere, place unreasonable demands and timetables on agencies. The courts, empowered to oversee implementation, then place additional legalistic requirements on agencies to do something about all of those (impossible to achieve) missed deadlines and demands.

The result of all of this, as she argued in Agency under Stress, is a long-term expansion of policy ends without much thought about the means of carrying it all out – something that, among other things, provides the true source for the “regulatory failures” so often highlighted by the media and our political discourse. By exploring policy development across the web of interbranch relationships and over time, Derthick’s scholarship pointed to the roots of seeming contemporary governmental dysfunction. It also provided a model of scholarship for a great many scholars operating in the American political development tradition (and beyond).

Of course, many of Derthick’s finest contributions came in the area of federalism and intergovernmental relations. Throughout her work, Derthick realized that the profound impact America’s federal system has on policy – and vice-versa. In her earliest book, for example, she examined how the federal government sought to transform public assistance – long a local concern – by liberalizing benefits, equalizing expenditures across jurisdictions, and placing more power in the hands of appointed administrators. She built upon this work to explore the many nuances of the contemporary American system of “cooperative” federalism.

Overall, Derthick was optimistic about the idea of federalism, particularly the ways in which the levels of government could complement one other. She was fond of Madison’s statement in Federalist 46 that “the federal and State governments are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers and designed for different purposes.” Contrary to the rhetoric of many ideologues, she recognized that the federal and state governments could both bring advantages to the practice of policymaking.

Nevertheless, she was less optimistic about the practice of contemporary federalism. While recognizing that federalism was not “dead,” as the constitutional scholar Philip Kurland lamented in 1970, Derthick keenly understood the many ways the system had fundamentally changed from earlier eras. The system of “dual federalism,” to the extent that it had existed at all before the pre-New Deal, had been replaced with a system of tight interdependence between the states and the federal government. Many contentious and wide-reaching areas of the American regulatory state, such as environmental policy and health care, have become highly fragmented, with the federal government setting rules and leaving much of the responsibility of administration up to states and localities.

She often highlighted the perils of over-centralization within this contemporary regime, which she characterized as the powerful secular trend in American politics, especially as federal courts got more involved in policy. She lamented the federal government’s tendency to establish unrealistic goals and foist them on states, including in areas that had traditionally in the jurisdiction of states and localities (a leading contemporary example, as she noted, being No Child Left Behind).

A recurring theme throughout her work was how the fragmentation of American policy led policymakers to find innovative ways to shift costs and responsibilities to other parts of the political system. This had a tendency to empower the federal government vis-à-vis the states, especially as the feds used various policy tools in attempts to coerce the states to adopt new policies. However, it also served to strengthen the states as well – at least in a certain way. As the federal government placed more and more responsibilities on the states to carry out federal programs, states gained more leverage to influence the direction of national policy. Derthick’s Up in Smoke: From Legislation to Litigation in Tobacco Politics (incidentally, one of the first books I read in graduate school) captured this dynamic well. National tobacco politics was transformed by state actors who used their place in the “cooperative” Medicaid system to expand government control over the tobacco industry. (Though, as she notes throughout, not in a way that made for good public policy).

It is, of course, impossible to do justice to Martha Derthick’s remarkable legacy of scholarship in just a short post. I’d conclude simply by noting that she operated in the best tradition of political science engagement with the world of practical politics. Her body of work is one that scholars will continue to ponder, engage with, and build upon for years to come. She will be missed.

Reflections on Barbara Boxer’s retirement


by Matthew Green

There is a lot one could say about Barbara Boxer, the California senator who recently announced that she would not be running for reelection in 2016. She was one of a generation of non-native Californians who moved to the state in the 1960s and 1970s (including my parents), many of them – like her – achieving great success in politics, journalism, teaching, or other professions. Boxer’s election to the Senate in 1992 was part of an historic wave of women entering Congress that helped bring the institution a little closer to gender parity. There’s her history of leadership on environmental and women’s issues and her strong liberal leanings (as evidenced by her Poole and Rosenthal DW-NOMINATE score, which has always been among the top ten most liberal scores in the Senate). And her retirement creates an opportunity for scores of ambitious Democratic California politicians who have been salivating for an open Senate seat for decades.

But my own view of Boxer is colored by personal experience. In the fall of 1993, less than a year after graduating from college, I moved from northern California to Washington, D.C. and worked for several months as an unpaid intern in Boxer’s Senate office. I had never worked in a legislative body before – indeed, had never even been to the nation’s capital – and the experience was a deeply formative one.

Above all, interning for Senator Boxer taught me a number of things about how Congress actually works. Up to that point I knew relatively little about the institution besides what I had gleaned from introductory textbooks and Hedrick Smith’s excellent book The Power Game.   Among the things I discovered that made a lasting impression, and that are as true today as they were two decades ago:

* Senators from large states have a substantial number of staffers. My recollection is that Boxer had somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 or 70 staffers, split between her D.C. and California offices. It took me some time just to get people’s names straight, let alone figure out who was responsible for what.

* One reason for the large number of staff is that constituents communicate a lot with their elected officials. Boxer’s D.C. office had at least two or three people whose sole job was to answer mail, and at least as many staffers responsible for answering the phones. Letters and phone calls came at a never-ending pace, and spiked in number whenever an issue got “hot.” (I recall some controversy at the time involving an illegal dog fur farm or something of that sort. Animal cruelty, I learned, really gets people’s dander up.) Boxer received so many letters every day that the New York Times wrote a story about it, which you can find here. (If you look carefully you’ll see a picture of a younger me, with bigger glasses and more hair, dutifully sorting mail.)

* Senators are super busy.   From what I could gather, Boxer was constantly moving between committee meetings, conferences with constituents and lobbyists, media events, and the Senate floor. The intern coordinator once gamely tried to set up a photo op between the Senator and us interns outside her committee room, but Boxer was running late for a meeting and swept right past us. I didn’t take it personally; after all, we were just lowly interns, and by then I realized just how much work it takes to represent a state with what was then nearly 30 million residents. (Nonetheless, when she suddenly appeared in the mailroom to “help” us open mail while the Times photographer happened to be present, I had to stifle the urge to ask, “Who is this lady?”)

* Congressional offices would fail without interns. As lowly as it might sometimes feel to be an intern, I soon realized just how indispensible we interns were. Merely opening and sorting the mail alone could take several hours each morning, and all of us took turns answering the phones over the course of the day. Then there were other errands that we interns were tasked with, like delivering dear colleague letters and bringing important documents from one office to another. If we were fortunate enough (and we had the time to spare) we might get a chance to draft a constituent letter, research a bill or amendment, or help draft a press release.

* Relationships among lawmakers and across offices are incredibly important. I don’t recall that Boxer’s office and that of her fellow California senator, Dianne Feinstein, were particularly close, and of course the two senators have very different personalities. But everyone in both offices knew that close cooperation between Boxer, Feinstein, and their staff was vital to the success of all. It also seemed that the most effective aides in Boxer’s office were able to draw upon personal contacts they had with staffers in other offices (both Republican and Democrat, in the House and Senate). I began to understand just how critical personal relationships and skillful staff are for the successful operation of Congress.

The things I learned while interning in Boxer’s office began to pique my interest in Congress more broadly. It was the first step in a journey that took me from wanting to study international relations to becoming a professor of American politics, studying, writing about, and teaching courses on Congress.

Boxer’s forthcoming departure from the Senate has left me feeling nostalgic (not to mention more than a little old). But in provoking me to think back on my brief time in her office, it has reminded me that Congress is about a lot more than just roll call votes, floor speeches, and reelection margins. It’s about people: the individuals who are elected to it, those who work within it (paid or not), and the millions who are represented by it. And, thankfully, it is still a place where young people can come fresh out of college to learn about representative democracy and, in some tiny way, play a part in making it work.

Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America.  His forthcoming book Underdog Politics explores the politics and power of the minority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He is also the author of The Speaker of the House:  A Study of Leadership (2010) and coauthor of Washington 101:  An Introduction to the Nation’s Capital (2014).

The Charlie Hebdo Attack in France and the Possibility of Progress out of Tragedy

French flag

By Jacqueline S. Gehring

Terrorists expounding extreme Islamic beliefs murdered 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo Wednesday. This violence has shocked the world and led to large public demonstrations of grief throughout France. Unfortunately, there have also been attacks on mosques in France, seemingly in retaliation for the terrorist attack. Such violence is only one symptom of widespread Islamaphobia and racism in France that pre-dated the attack.

At this moment of rupture, political leadership can be very important for influencing the response of the state and of the citizenry to the violent event. This is especially the case when fear and anger might increase anti-Muslim sentiment in France, undermining further the sense of common national identity and emphasizing the minority status of French Muslims. Some news outlets and scholars have even speculated that the violence will lead to substantially increased support for France’s far-right party, the National Front, perhaps even leading to the victory of its party in future presidential and parliamentary elections.

It is unlikely that the National Front will achieve such gains, but it will depend on the ability of centrist leaders to exert their influence and provide alternatives to the far-right response, rational and balanced media coverage, and on the willingness of the French people to take a stand against racism and Islamaphobia in their society. Research on other European states has shown that the fear of Islamic terrorism did not lead to the success of far-right parties. Instead, in Spain terrorist attacks right before a major election led to the success of the center-left candidates, and in Britain the fear of terror did not influence parliamentary elections thanks in large part to the more “rational” way the media covered the issue. Furthermore, many political scientists speculate that support for the National Front in the recent European Parliament (EUP) elections will decrease in national elections.

As Shields argues, the successes of the National Front in the European election, and its increased representation at the local level in some small municipalities in France, do not mean that most French citizens actual support the party or its beliefs. Shields cites a 2014 TNS Sofres poll noting that 78% of those polled disagreed with the National Front’s proposed policies and 54% “see the FN as a protest party with no capacity to govern.” Furthermore, the European election suffered from a low turnout rate in France, and is notoriously considered by most political scientists to be a ‘second order election’ which means that it is unclear if voters are simply punishing the party that is in power at the national level, or if they are actually pursuing their true policy preferences. Thus, although this time of crisis has opened a window of opportunity to the National Front, a shift to the far-right among the electorate would be quite surprising.

It would be surprising, but of course it would not be impossible. The National Front has been gaining in popularity according to recent polls about upcoming municipal elections and the 2017 Presidential race. In light of those gains, the response of centrist political leaders, and the media, to the Charlie Hebdo murders is even more important. One excellent first step has been the exclusion of the National Front from a national march of unity planned for this Sunday. The response to the attacks is also an important opportunity for the French public to take a stand against the extensive racism and Islamaphobia in French society as they recognize the murders as acts of terrorism committed by extremists whose actions are condemned by the French Muslim community.

As Erik Bleich has argued, Muslims in France are often targeted not only based on their espoused religion, but also on ethnic markers that suggest they may be of the Muslim faith, thus linking Islamaphobia with racism and ethnic discrimination. Most young Muslim Frenchmen have limited employment prospects because of the entrenched discrimination in French society. It is important to note that although some news stories have framed the presence of Muslims in France as an encroachment by recent immigrants, most French Muslims are French citizens who were born and raised in France. Immigration reform will not take France back to some mythic ethnically and religiously homogenous land of harmony as the National Front suggests. France is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation like most other Western European societies, and it must come to terms with that reality and find a way forward. As I have argued elsewhere, racism and Islamaphobia have been all too central to French policy in the last decade. Fighting ethnic and religious discrimination must be a part of that forward progress. The tragic murders at Charlie Hebdo provide the French people and state an opportunity to turn the violence of this attack into a call to action to further protect the liberty of journalists, satirists, and racial and religious minorities alike.

Jacqueline Gehring is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Allegheny College.  Her work focuses on the law and politics of diversity in Europe, including “Roma and the Limits of Free Movement in Europe” European Journal of Migration and Law, 15 (2013) 7-28 which explores the European response to the French forced expulsions of Roma immigrants.