Influencing Policy Decisions in Texas

Learning Objective

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Outline the actions an individual can take to impact policy decisions in Texas

Introduction: Policymakers

Many Americans were concerned when Congress began debating the ACA. As the program took shape, some people felt the changes it proposed were being debated too hastily, would be implemented too quickly, or would summarily give the government control over an important piece of the U.S. economy—the health care industry.

Ironically, the government had been heavily engaged in providing health care for decades. More than 50 percent of all health care dollars spent were being spent by the U.S. government well before the ACA was enacted. As you have already learned, Medicare was created decades earlier. Despite protesters’ resistance to government involvement in health care, there is no keeping government out of Medicare; the government IS Medicare. For Texans, this explains why there are so many problems with the program.

What many did not realize is that few if any of the proposals that eventually became part of the ACA were original. While the country was worried about problems like terrorism, the economy, and conflicts over gay rights, armies of individuals were debating the best ways to fix the nation’s health care delivery. Two important but overlapping groups defended their preferred policy changes: policy advocates and policy analysts.

Policy Advocates

Take a minute to think of a policy change you believe would improve some condition in the Texas. Now ask yourself this: “Why do I want to change this policy?” Are you motivated by a desire for justice? Do you feel the policy change would improve your life or that of members of your community? Is your sense of morality motivating you to change the status quo? Would your profession be helped? Do you feel that changing the policy might raise your status?

Most people have some policy position or issue they would like to see altered. One of the reasons the news media are so enduring is that citizens have a range of opinions on public policy, and they are very interested in debating how a given change would improve their lives or the country’s. But despite their interests, most people do little more than vote or occasionally contribute to a political campaign. A few people, however, become policy advocates by actively working to propose or maintain public policy.

One way to think about policy advocates is to recognize that they hold a normative position on an issue, that is, they have a conviction about what should or ought to be done. The best public policy, in their view, is one that accomplishes a specific goal or outcome. For this reason, advocates often begin with an objective and then try to shape or create proposals that help them accomplish that goal. Facts, evidence, and analysis are important tools for convincing policymakers or the general public of the benefits of their proposals. Private citizens often find themselves in advocacy positions, particularly if they are required to take on leadership roles in their private lives or in their organizations. The most eective advocates are usually hired professionals who form lobbying groups or think tanks to promote their agenda.

A lobbying group that frequently takes on advocacy roles is AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). AARP’s primary job is to convince the government to provide more public resources and services to senior citizens, often through regulatory or redistributive politics. Chief among its goals are lower health care costs and the safety of Social Security pension payments.

These aims put AARP in the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition, since Democrats have historically been stronger advocates for Medicare’s creation and expansion. In 2002, for instance, Democrats and Republicans were debating a major change to Medicare. The Democratic Party supported expanding Medicare to include free or low-cost prescription drugs, while the Republicans preferred a plan that would require seniors to purchase drug insurance through a private insurer. The government would subsidize costs, but many seniors would still have substantial out-of-pocket expenses. To the surprise of many, AARP supported the Republican proposal.

While Democrats argued that their position would have provided a better deal for individuals, AARP reasoned that the Republican plan had a much better chance of passing. The Republicans controlled the House and looked likely to reclaim control of the Senate in the upcoming election. Then-president George W. Bush was a Republican and would almost certainly have vetoed the Democratic approach. AARP’s support for the legislation helped shore up support for Republicans in the 2002 midterm election and also help convince a number of moderate Democrats to support the bill (with some changes), which passed despite apparent public disapproval. AARP had done its job as an advocate for seniors by creating a new benefit it hoped could later be expanded, rather than fighting for an extreme position that would have left it with nothing.

Not all policy advocates are as willing to compromise their positions. It is much easier for a group like AARP to compromise over the amount of money seniors will receive, for instance, than it is for an evangelical religious group to compromise over issues like abortion, or for civil rights groups to accept something less than equality. Nor are women’s rights groups likely to accept pay inequality as it currently exists. It is easier to compromise over financial issues than over our individual views of morality or social justice.

Texas advocates lobby lawmakers on budget in a session with many priorities (Video)


Policy Analysts

A second approach to creating public policy is a bit more objective. Rather than starting with what ought to happen and seeking ways to make it so, policy analysts try to identify all the possible choices available to a decision maker and then gauge their impacts if implemented. The goal of the analyst isn’t really to encourage the implementation of any of the options; rather, it is to make sure decision makers are fully informed about the implications of the decisions they do make.

Understanding the financial and other costs and benefits of policy choices requires analysts to make strategic guesses about how the public and governmental actors will respond. For example, when policymakers are considering changes to health care policy, one very important question is how many people will participate. If very few people had chosen to take advantage of the new health care plans available under the ACA marketplace, it would have been significantly cheaper than advocates proposed, but it also would have failed to accomplish the key goal of increasing the number of insured. But if people who currently have insurance had dropped it to take advantage of ACA’s subsidies, the program’s costs would have skyrocketed with very little real benefit to public health. Similarly, had all states chosen to create their own marketplaces, the cost and complexity of ACA’s implementation would have been greatly reduced.

Because advocates have an incentive to understate costs and overstate benefits, policy analysis tends to be a highly politicized aspect of government. It is critical for policymakers and voters that policy analysts provide the most accurate analysis possible. A number of independent or semi-independent think tanks have sprung up in Washington, DC, to provide assessments of policy options. Most businesses or trade organizations also employ their own policy- analysis wings to help them understand proposed changes or even oer some of their own. Some of these try to be as impartial as possible. Most, however, have a known bias toward policy advocacy. The Cato Institute, for example, is well known and highly respected policy analysis group that both liberal and conservative politicians have turned to when considering policy options. But the Cato Institute has a known libertarian bias; most of the problems it selects for analysis have the potential for private sector solutions. This means its analysts tend to include the rosiest assumptions of economic growth when considering tax cuts and to overestimate the costs of public sector proposals.

Get Connected!

Preparing to Be a Policymaker

What is your passion? Is there an aspect of society you think should be changed? Become a public policy advocate for it! One way to begin is by petitioning the Oce of the President. In years past, citizens wrote letters to express grievances or policy preferences. Today, you can visit We the People, the White House online petitions platform. At this government site, you can search for petitions related to your cause or post your own. If your petition gets enough signatures, the White House will issue a response. The petitions range from serious to silly, but the process is an important way to speak out about the policies that are important to you.

White House Petition website icon
Figure 11.11 The White House petition website encourages citizens to participate in the democratic process. Image credit: SarnZero License: CC- BY-3.0