Beyond Separation of Powers Research Paper

Pages: 13 (3563 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Government

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

It is hard not to hear in these words a Cassandra-like warning -- an accurate description of the future that was to go unheeded and unbelieved.


While there is essentially universal agreement on the basic dynamics of the iron triangle concept, there is a certain amount of disagreement over what constitutes a subgovernment system. (It should be noted that some scholars use the terms "iron triangle" and "subgovernment" interchangeably.) For the purpose of this paper, I am defining a subgovernment as a cluster or grouping of individuals that act both as individuals and as a collective that acts so as to maximize the effectiveness of the bureaucratic (or routinized) decisions in one area of political decision making (deHaven-Smith & Van Horn, 2005, p. 630).

One can see how this model is aligned with that of the iron triangle model. In fact, I would argue that the iron triangle model is one particular manifestation of a subgovernment. However, there are also other possible manifestations (or embodiments) of a subgovernment, for often there are more than three players in the setting of policy. Let us look at a specific example to demonstrate how this can be the case.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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If one looks at the issue of abortion policy in the United States, there are far more than three groups of players. Moreover, the players are connected to each other in a way that is more complex than the highly predictable and reified relationships that exist in an iron triangle model. The key players in this area of American polity include: Members of both houses of Congress on both the pro-choice and pro-life sides; the president; the hierarchy of the Federal Drug Administration (in its regulatory role of such things as RU-486, a drug that induces abortion); the Department of Health and Human Services (for its role in setting national health policy); the Surgeon General (for the same reason); the federal judiciary (in its role in hearing cases that apply to the protections that apply to family planning clinics); and the U.S. Supreme Court (for its ability to determine the Constitutional basis for the individual right to privacy and thus of a woman's right to choose an abortion).

Others involved in this system are the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which is one of the bodies that investigates clinic violence and the actions of militant anti-choice groups); state and local police agencies (for the same reason); the Department of Education (which influences what young people are taught about human sexuality); state and local educational bureaucracies (for the same reason); state legislatures and state houses (for setting abortion policy that is supposed to lie within the bounds of federally determined policy, although the recent abortion laws enacted in Nebraska call this latter into question).

Other members of this subgovernment are public and private hospitals (which set their own policies on abortion and choose to train or refuse to train doctors to perform abortions); the Catholic Church (which uses its power to try to have laws enacted that limit or ban abortion); the Joint Committee on Accreditation of Healthcare Agencies; the Environmental Protection Agency (which oversees the disposal of medical waste, including fetal tissue); the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; organized lay political groups such as NARAL and Americans United for Life;

Finally there are the individual activists who protest at clinics or serve as clinic protectors, call and write their representatives, attend rallies and marches, etc. And each voter in a national (and often in state) elections whose choices will have the chance to affect abortion policy. Candidates (especially those running for state or lower offices) often run on a platform that does not mention abortion in any way; this does not mean that they will not be called upon once in office to make decision about abortion rights. Thus voters who select them may not even be aware of the fact they are participants in this subgovernment: This kind of unintentional participation is not something that could occur in an iron triangle model,

Other stakeholders could be added to this list, but the above description suggests how complex and dynamic the subgovernment of abortion politics in the United States is. Most of the participants are government personnel; those participants who are private citizens are still involved in a governmental process because they are focused on influencing governmental policy either directly or indirectly (Jordan & Maloney, 1997).

Some scholars would argue that the above example violates some of the key characteristics of subgovernments in that there is a high rather than a low level of political partisanship and that the membership is large (Lee, 2006). (This last is true only if one includes non-governmental members. This would always be the case: There will be a large membership in a subgovernment if one includes those members of the citizenry who are affected by or interested in the policy at hand.) However, I would argue that the arena of abortion politics does qualify on the ground that this arena of public policy exhibits a well-defined set of jurisdictional rules, enduring and in large measure highly predictable coalitions among the various players, and that there is (on each side) a clear definition of the problem, relatively little intra-side conflict, and little tolerance on each side for any level of dissent.

Policy Subsystems

As was noted about the models of iron triangles and subgovernments, it is also the case that there are key similarities between those two forms of policymaking and the activity that goes on in a policy subsystem. Jones & Jenkins-Smith (2009) provide an excellent operationalization of a policy subsystem. They list the following criteria for a policy subsystem:

1. Participants regard themselves as a semi-autonomous community who share a domain of expertise.

2. Participants have sought to influence public policy within the domain over a fairly long period of time (i.e., seven to ten years).

3. There exist specialized units within relevant governmental agencies to deal with the policy of interest.

4. There exist interest groups, or specialized subunits within interest groups, that regard this as a major policy topic (p. 44).

They note that subsystems can function in parallel to each other and that there can also be subsidiary elements of the subsystems themselves -- rather like subatomic particles. Key among these sub-subsystematic groups are advocates of a particular position arising from the policy content. Nearly inevitably, every subsystem gives birth (or has been giving birth by) advocates. "Advocacy coalitions exist within subsystems, consisting of policy participants" (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, p. 45).

These "policy entrepreneurs are the primary agent of interest operating within and across subsystems.... actors from a variety of public and private organizations who are actively concerned with policy problem or issue . . . And who regularly seek to influence policy" (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, p. 45). These policy subsystem actors:

[H]ave quite general internal incentive structures that operate concurrently within institutionally defined incentive structures or policy venues. Policy entrepreneurs may pursue policy change or maintenance for purposes of personal interest, promoting values, and because they enjoy the game. [Many] derive from their desire to translate their belief systems into public policies. (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, p. 45).

Subsystems are highly diverse in their structure, varying in "size, degree of connectedness, conflict, longevity, commitment, degree of formal or informal participation, and scope of activities.... The structure and activities are reflective of the policy domain and environment in which they exist" (Orr, 2006).

Orr (2006) provides an excellent description of what is constant across the different embodiments of policy subsystems:

In studying the policy process, policy research has focused on interest groups within a larger context, comprised of both competing and allied groups, institutions and governmental actors. These "policy subsystems" are made up of institutions and actors that are directly involved in the policymaking process in a specialized policy area. These actors may include interest groups, think tanks, academics, government representatives and government agency personnel.

An excellent exampled of a policy subsystem in American politics today is the group (using this word in a very loose sense) of individuals who are working on the issue of climate change.

Policy subsystems are generally more similar to subgovernments than either is to iron triangles. Although all three are models of ways in which members of the government and the public join with each other to work to influence -- or to create policy ab initio -- the former two coalesce more around policy issues while iron triangles are more focused on power and money. Of course, advocacy, power, and money are all related to each other and concerns… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Beyond Separation of Powers.  (2010, April 22).  Retrieved July 10, 2020, from

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"Beyond Separation of Powers."  22 April 2010.  Web.  10 July 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Beyond Separation of Powers."  April 22, 2010.  Accessed July 10, 2020.