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.

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One thought on “Martha Derthick’s legacy

  1. I recently read a little-known but incredibly thorough and illuminating monograph by Derthick on politics and policy-making in pre-Home Rule DC. She was an amazing, versatile scholar.

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