Tension Between Theory and Practice. Essay

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International Social Science Review, 85(1-2), 62-63.

Halachmi, a. & Bouckaert, G. (1996). Organizational performance and measurement in the public sector. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.


How has congressional agenda setting changed over time?

The agenda of the U.S. Congress has been closely aligned with its role as the legislative branch of the U.S. government. According to Black's Law Dictionary (1991), "The first Congress under the Constitution met on March 4, 1789 in the Federal Hall in New York City" (p. 301). Indeed, the creation of the U.S. Congress coincided with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. In this regard, Black's (1991) adds that, the U.S. Congress was created pursuant to Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution, adopted by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787 providing that "all legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives" (p. 301).

Over the years, the congressional agenda-setting process has focused on the most salient issues confronting American society, and because these change over time, so too has the congressional agenda. For instance, the congressional agenda may be focused on responding to U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as labor and antitrust issues, or to executive branch decisions in its check and balance role (Vile, 1999). During times of national crises such as war, the congressional agenda is typically less focused on these issues in favor of formulating policies that may even be unconstitutional but which have been rationalized as being necessary to protect the nation's interests (Vile, 1999). The specific agenda-setting approach used by the U.S. Congress may differ between the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as within these institutions. In this regard, Vile (1999) reports that, "The content of policies is not merely determined in the decision-making phase.
Rather, policy content is negotiated over and over again, in problem definition, legislation, regulation, and court decisions, and again in the decisions made by street-level bureaucrats" (p. 568).

Irrespective of the confounding factor involving intensive lobbying that may influence individual congressional members from time to time, the overall congressional agenda-setting approach has some distinguishing features, including reducing prevailing economic and social trends into problems worthy of congressional attention and new laws. For example, Vile suggests that, "Even acknowledging the porous nature of the policy process, the stages of the policy process often have specific characteristics. This is especially true during agenda-setting, the political process whereby conditions are transformed into problems" (p. 568). The tendency to create problems where none existed is therefore characteristic of the congressional agenda-setting process, a process whereby incumbents help to secure their reelection by catering to special interests that have the deep pockets needed to campaign effectively in the 21st century. Despite this tendency, though, the U.S. Congress has responded to many social conditions in the United States in ways that have been effective in eliminating discrimination and unfair labor practices in ways that would not have otherwise been possible (Colker, 2007). In sum, then, the congressional agenda-setting process may differ between the House and Senate, but it generally involves reducing prevailing social and economic conditions into codified problems that can be quantified and acted upon by new policies that are influenced by a wide range of sources that may or may not reflect the nation's best interests.


Black's law dictionary. (1991). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.

Colker, R. (2007). The mythic 43 million Americans with disabilities. William and Mary Law

Review, 49(1), 1-3.

Vile, J.R. (1994).….....

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