Theoretical Foundations and Background

Baumgartner and Jones’ (1993, 2002) notions of long periods of equilibrium punctuated by bursts of change integrates and builds upon the substantial litera-

 

 

4 Policy Studies Journal, 34:1

ture on policy subsystems, Cobb and Elder’s (1971) distinction between systemic and formal agendas, and Kingdon’s (1995) ideas of policy streams, windows of opportunity, and policy entrepreneurs. They identify the policy subsystem as a key element of agenda setting, defined as a closed system made up of those with com- patible interests in a policy area. Under normal policymaking conditions the agenda space allocated to an issue is dominated and controlled by the subsystem and alter- native voices are systematically excluded.

However, when a group is able to expand the conflict by reframing an issue in such a way as to mobilize previously apathetic members of the electorate, they are able to draw increased attention to their perspective. Sometimes, this initiates a system of positive feedback that feeds upon itself and draws attention from other actors and issue areas until, ultimately, the resource advantage of the subsystem is overcome and a new equilibrium forms inclusive of the widened array of interests. Members of Congress, in particular, are often sensitive to the mobilization of the electorate around an issue and may reprioritize their preference structure to allow the consideration of previously excluded voices. The difficulty for challengers lies in generating enough public concern to give congressional members outside the subsystem sufficient incentives to expend their political capital on the issue.

The growth of the environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s is arguably a textbook example of a Schattschneider mobilization as outlined by Baumgartner and Jones (1993). The conflict expands as opponents of the status quo work to raise awareness and mobilize supporters from the ranks of the uninvolved. A number of focusing events occurred during this time period that drew attention to the need for environmental regulations, and raised the profile of environmental groups generally as legitimate participants in the policy process. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the first Earth Day in the April of 1970 were among the most prominent of these events.

Perhaps as a result of widely publicized events such as the spontaneous com- bustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, an oil spill off the coast of California that spoiled nearly 20 miles of coastal beaches, or the increasingly obvious degra- dation of air quality in the nation’s urban centers, Americans embraced Earth Day with unprecedented enthusiasm and a window of opportunity opened for envi- ronmental legislation which included the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973.

These events set the stage for environmentalist challenges in a number of estab- lished policy subsystems including the management of national forests and the public rangelands. In each of these issue areas, a policy image centered on resource extraction had prevailed for decades and each had established powerful and entrenched interests in Congress. However, in each case the rate of extraction was considered unsustainable by environmentalists, and they hoped to use the momen- tum generated by the environmental movement to dislodge the established policy monopolies and force a redefinition of the policy image to incorporate the values of conservation and the noneconomic uses of public lands.

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