Academy Curricular Exchange
Columbia Education Center
Social Studies



TITLE:       "IRON TRIANGLES"

AUTHOR:   JOHN "VINCENT" BALISTERE; NEVADA

GRADE LEVEL/SUBJECT:     11-12;   U.S. GOVERNMENT & U.S. HISTORY

ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE BLOCKS TO PRESIDENTIAL POWER HAS
DEVELOPED FROM A THREE-SIDED COMBINATION OF MEMBERS OF
CONGRESS, BUREAUCRATS, AND INTEREST GROUPS, REFERRED TO AS
THE "IRON TRIANGLES."  MOST OF THE CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES
AND SUBCOMMITTEES HAVE RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE AGENCIES OF
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH WHOSE PROGRAMS THEY AUTHORIZE AND
FOR WHOM THEY APPROPRIATE MONEY.  THE COMMITTEES AND THE
BUREAUCRATS FROM THE AGENCIES HAVE PERMANENT AND CLOSE
RELATIONSHIPS WITH INTEREST GROUPS THAT WANT TO INFLUENCE
THE POLICIES OF GOVERNMENT.  NAME A POLICY AREA FROM DEFENSE
TO AGRICULTURE AND YOU WILL FIND AN IRON TRIANGLE.  WHEN
PRESIDENT REAGAN, FOR EXAMPLE, PROPOSED SELLING THE FEDERAL
HOUSING ADMINISTRATION (FHA) TO PRIVATE INTERESTS, THE
OUTCRY FROM THE ORGANIZATIONS OF HOME BUILDERS AND
MORTGAGE BANKERS AND THE COMMITTEES OF CONGRESS WITH
JURISDICTION OVER THE FHA WAS SO GREAT THAT THE WHITE
HOUSE BACKED OFF BY SAYING THAT THE PROPOSAL NEEDED
FURTHER STUDY.

     THE IRON TRIANGLES USUALLY OUTLAST THE FOUR OR EIGHT
YEARS OF A PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION.  PRESIDENTS MAY
COME AND PRESIDENTS MAY GO, BUT THE CIVIL SERVANTS OF THE
EXECUTIVE BRANCH HAVE CAREERS SPANNING FORTY YEARS; AND
THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH MEMBERS OF CONGRESS AND INTEREST
GROUPS ARE MORE PERMANENT FIXTURES OF NATIONAL GOVERNMENT
THAN PRESIDENTS' CAREERS.  ACCORDINGLY, PRESIDENTS ARE
ANXIOUS TO SEE THEIR PROGRAMS ENACTED, SINCE THEIR TIME IN
OFFICE IS LIMITED BY THE CONSTITUTION.  PRESIDENTS TRY TO
ACCOMPLISH MOST OF THEIR OBJECTIVES EARLY IN THEIR TERMS.
AS SECOND TERMS PROCEED, THEY ARE SEEN AS LAME DUCKS WITH
LITTLE INFLUENCE.

     AS A CONSEQUENCE, IT IS OFTEN EASIER FOR A BUREAUCRAT TO
DEFY A PRESIDENT THAN TO COOPERATE WITH A PRESIDENT IN
DEFYING CONGRESS, WHICH, AFTER ALL, KEEPS THE BUREAUCRATIC
SHIP AFLOAT WITH APPROPRIATIONS.  ONE WAY IN WHICH
PRESIDENTS HAVE SOUGHT TO BREAK UP THE IRON TRIANGLES IS BY
PROPOSING REORGANIZATIONS OF THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH WITH THE
GOAL OF BRINGING SIMILAR PROGRAMS SCATTERED AMONG A
VARIETY OF FEDERAL DEPARTMENTS INTO A SINGLE AGENCY.  FROM
THE PRESIDENT'S POINT OF VIEW, THIS PERMITS A MORE RATIONAL
APPROACH TO A SINGLE NATIONAL PROBLEM. HOWEVER, MANY IN
CONGRESS PREFER THE FRAGMENTED APPROACH.

     THE IDEA OF EXAMINING POLITICS IN WASHINGTON BY STUDYING
THE SUBGOVERNMENTS OR THE TIGHTLY KNIT GROUPS THAT
CONTROL POLICY MAKING WAS DONE BY DOUGLASS CATER IN THE
LATE 1950'S.  CATER'S SUBGOVERNMENT HAD THE THREE
COMPONENTS WE NOW CALL THE IRON TRIANGLES.
     A.  KEY MEMBERS OF THE CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES AND
SUBCOMMITTEES RESPONSIBLE FOR THE POLICY AREAS (SUCH AS A
COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN)
     B.  OFFICIALS FROM THE AGENCY OR BUREAU THAT ADMINISTERS
THE POLICY (SUCH AS THE DIRECTOR OF A DIVISION OF THE U.S. DEPT
OF AGRICULTURE)
     C.  LOBBYISTS WHO REPRESENT THE AGENCY'S CLIENTS
(GROWERS, REFINERIES AND FOREIGN PRODUCES)

     THE IRON TRIANGLES OR POLICY MAKING COMMUNITIES ARE
LARGELY AUTONOMOUS AND CLOSED; OUTSIDERS HAVE A GREAT
DEAL OF DIFFICULTY PENETRATING THEM.  EVEN PRESIDENTS HAVE
HAD DIFFICULTY INFLUENCING IRON TRIANGLES, WHICH HAVE
ENDURED OVER TIME AND CHANGED LITTLE WHEN NEW
ADMINISTRATIONS HAVE COME INTO POWER.  JOB CHANGES HAVE
NOT USUALLY AFFECTED THEM.  AN INDIVIDUAL WHO LEFT ONE
COMPONENT OF THE TRIANGLE OFTEN WOULD MOVE TO ANOTHER.
IRON TRIANGLES HAVE WORKED BECAUSE PARTICIPANTS SHARED
SIMILAR POLICY VIEWS AND TRIED TO REACH A CONSENSUS THAT
WOULD BENEFIT ALL  OF THEM.

     IN RECENT YEARS, THE IRON TRIANGLE MODEL HAS BEEN VERY
POPULAR WITH POLITICAL SCIENTISTS, WHO MAY USE DIFFERENT
TERMS AND FRAMEWORKS, BUT THE BASIC IDEAS ARE THE SAME:
TYPICALLY, A SMALL GROUP OF INDIVIDUALS DOMINATED
POLICYMAKING IN THEIR ISSUE AREA, THESE POLICY COMMUNITIES
WERE LARGELY AUTONOMOUS, AND THEY FAVORED THOSE WHO WERE
WELL ORGANIZED.


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John Kurilecjmk@ofcn.org