Why Politicians Let Outdated Policies Linger

Our political system moves slowly on policy change—that’s by design, we’re often reminded. But sometimes change is so slow it can start feel like nothing’s happening simply because politicians simply don’t want things to change.

And that’s kind of true, according to a paper by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Steven Callander and Gregory Martin of Emory University. They used game theory to build a model of the policymaking process in the U.S.

“The simple view of the (political) process is ‘I want A, you want B, so we have to compromise in the middle,’ a very static, unchanging view,” Callander said to Stanford. “But politics in practice is messier, largely because politicians are trying to solve hard, constantly changing problems.”

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Political policies fit reality less well over time as technology, the economy and social hierarchies shift, the researchers posit, but oftentimes these policies are slow to be updated. Our world changes faster than laws do (case in point: the invention of cars, the internet and personal drones—technologies policymakers had to rush to catch up with).

The political value of stalling

Politicians are elected to advocate for their constituents and advance the country (or state or city) for the better. The purpose of policymaking is adapting to change, Callander said. But it’s not always possible for elected officials to predict new technologies that will need to be regulated, or if those regulations will work, the researchers pointed out.

Sometimes, however, policymakers representing the two dominant ends of our political spectrum agree that a change needs to be made, but seem unwilling to act, the researchers wrote.

“That can leave the public exasperated and feeling like the government is either incompetent or evil,” Callander said.

The reason behind this inability to shift policy is not a gridlock of political opinions, with the policymakers involved unable to compromise, as the public often assumes, but because “policy decay,” as the researchers call it, can give certain politicians or political groups an advantage over others, he said.

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“The worse the situation gets, the more power or leverage a given person or group may have over the outcomes. So decay becomes an ingredient in the left-right fight over policy.”

Callander raised the Affordable Care Act as an example. As of June 2017, 40 percent of U.S. adults have an unfavorable opinion of the policy, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Republicans control both the U.S. House and Senate and have openly criticized the ACA since the beginning and have called for changes to the policy.

But even with a Republican in the White House, “needed fixes haven’t happened because Republicans used the decay of the ACA to try to move the nature of health care policy fundamentally to the right,” Callander argued.

And the worse the situation gets, the more leverage these Republican lawmakers have, Callander and Martin’s model suggests. But conflicts within the Republican party itself, as subsets of the party try to use the decay of the ACA to their benefits, as well, have stymied change.

How to push for change

Lobbying isn’t just for big corporations and interests. You have the power to effect change by lobbying the lawmakers who represent you.

Example: In February, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was one of two Republicans in the U.S. Senate to vote against confirming Betsy DeVos as as the country’s education secretary. Murkowski voted “no” in part because of an outpouring of constituent feedback in the form of letters, calls and visits.

“Deliver signatures, deliver materials, lobby (your) representative on the things (you) care about—those things are all still available to us,” said Steven Olikara, president of the nonpartisan Millennial Action Project, an organization that encourages young adults to get involved with government, in a previous Rewire article. “The trend is toward a more open and transparent government.”

Here are more ways you can engage with your government at the local, state and city level.


Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.