The pendulum and the ratchet

My thoughts on this start with education policy but is more general: Whether elected Republican officials can reverse a slew of Obama administration policies may depend on whether each policy area is more like a pendulum or more like a ratchet. Elite Republicans hope that by the end of 2018, federal health care, environmental, tax, and financial-regulation policies will look like a pendulum that rapidly swung towards extreme conservative policies after this election.

In contrast, former President Obama and liberals hope that in their priority areas, current federal policy acts more like a ratchet, with teeth and a pawl that block reverses and slippage.

The pendulum and the ratchet in education policy

Neither metaphor is going to be true in all areas; the critical question is where policy is more like a pendulum or more like a ratchet. Twenty years ago in their book Tinkering toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued that education reform witnessed cycles of reform rhetoric in counterpoint with long-term institutional trends. Tyack and Cuban explained that at a superficial level, the rhetoric of education reform appeared much like a pendulum: “Watchwords shifted in different times from excellence to equality, efficiency to empathy, unity to pluralism–and then back again” (p. 44).

But Tyack and Cuban saw several problems with this back-and-forth model, two of which are relevant beyond the history of education policy. First, for large periods of the past 150 years, national debates about education may have been ideological but not necessarily partisan. Education politics have often had plenty of conflict — people often disagree on the basic purposes of schooling — but those conflicts have rarely mapped neatly onto partisan shifts in who controlled state or federal governments.

Tyack and Cuban saw significant agreement between Democratic and Republican politicians on wide areas of education policy — illustrated since their book by the bipartisan writing of both the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and its 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. In both 2001 and 2015, bipartisan majorities in Congress shifted the direction of national education policy. The 2015 law reversed significant parts of centralized school accountability mandates in No Child Left Behind, but that reversal was the result of a bipartisan shift, not a partisan one.

In addition to the poor mapping of education politics onto partisan divides, Tyack and Cuban pointed out that many education reforms survived, so much so that we no longer consider them reforms. These institutional trends belie the common myth that schools do not change and we just repeat fads; we just forget what was once a reform.

The history of schooling in the United States is full of reforms that were so successful that they are no longer considered reforms: the incorporation of kindergarten into public schools, the use of letter grades to judge student performance, the creation of junior high or middle schools, the expansion of high schools from small schools to several-thousand-student behemoths, the feeding of poor children in public schools, and the use of standardized testing to judge school performance. Even chalkboards were once a dream of school reformers, over time incorporated into formal requirements for school construction and now transformed into dry-erase boards.

For much of the history of school reform, schools have changed through the silent operation of a policy ratchet: as reforms are implemented, various features of schools lock some of those changes into routines and practices that slowly become defined as the ordinary and expected features of schooling. Larry Cuban identified three such features: changes that create their own constituencies, that are easily visible/countable by the general public, and that modified rather than destroyed existing structures.

One important caveat: the survival of school reforms have been largely disconnected from whether they improved the lives of children in schools. Feeding poor children is a very good thing. It is harder to argue that the world is dramatically improved by more 2,000-student high schools.

The pendulum and the ratchet in federal policy

We can see similar ratchets in other areas. Social Security and Medicare are the obvious examples: today, all voters are going to be eligible for both if they live long enough, so the broad nature of these programs generates a constituency to fight for them. George W. Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security began his long slide through an unpopular second term. When the Democratic majority in 2010 passed the Affordable Care Act, they (and many scholars and policy advocates) assumed a similar dynamic would guarantee the future for Obamacare. Most Americans would keep employer-sponsored health care, while millions would get new health care from the insurance exchanges or Medicaid expansion. Voila! Instant political buffer.

But the millions of newly-insured Americans have not given the Affordable Care Act much political protection; in public polling, approval of Obamacare has never risen above 45%. Now that Donald Trump has won the presidency, and Republicans hold both houses in Congress, Obamacare repeal is at the top of their agenda. And while there are plenty of pundits writing speculatively about the politics of the “Obamacare war,” no one is talking about federal health insurance law as a “third rail of politics” in the same way that Social Security is.

Instead, discussion of the future of Obamacare and other Obama administration policies has revolved around other teeth in the policy ratchet: the veto points in Congress, or places at which the Democratic minority might exercise an effective veto over bills such as an Obamacare repeal, or the way that administrative rulemaking will make it difficult for a Trump administration to erase environmental regulations wholesale.

For much of the Obama administration’s policies, the active question in the next few years may be how effectively Republicans can knock out the teeth in the policy ratchet.

Extreme partisanship and legislative repeals

The modern extreme partisanship of Congress may play into this dynamic, at least in legislation. In looking at attempts to repeal legislation since 1950, political scientist Jordan Ragusa concluded that landmark laws passed in a period of divided government were relatively protected from repeal, while major legislation that passed on party-line votes was more vulnerable, but that effect did not happen immediately: “divided government … increases the likelihood of repeal in the period immediately following enactment…. But, over the long term, legislation passed during divided party control is less likely to be repealed than legislation passed during unified government” (p. 1038).

It makes sense that ideological discipline within a party can have a paradoxical effect on the policy ratchet — if a party (or a faction) can enforce discipline on an issue, that makes it easier to pass legislation when the party is in power. But that discipline may polarize the issue between the parties, making it more likely for the opposing party to reverse policy when it gains power.

An example of this dynamic is clear in tax policy; since the late 1970s, Republicans have been increasingly opposed to anything that looks like higher taxes. This is symbolized by the efforts of the Koch-funded Americans for Tax Reform, which pushes Republican officeholders to pledge never to raise any tax at any time on any Americans, for any purpose, and an internal party discipline to enforce this policy stance.

Democrats in Washington have responded to the extremism of modern Republicans on tax policy by being willing to raise taxes in strategic ways and to defend moderately tax increases on the wealthy. During the Obama administration, early tax increases were generally to support health-care policy.

At the same time, the 2009 economic stimulus package cut payroll taxes, and Obama otherwise protected the majority of taxpayers from other tax increases. Outside health care policy, the major tax increases in the past eight years have been through the return of the highest marginal tax rate to 39.6%, where it was in the Clinton administration.

In 2017, we are sure to see another reversal in tax policy, with another set of tax cuts that primarily benefit the very wealthy. At least in the past quarter-century, tax policy has looked more like a pendulum than a ratchet.

The pendulum and ratchet-breaking

All policy metaphors are limited, especially in a state with an extensive administrative apparatus. When both parties understand the advantage of insulating their preferred policies from political swings, and partisanship reigns, the dynamic is not so simple. In a state with many veto points, each party has an incentive to break down the other party’s ratchets and build their own before political control changes. At least as long as Washington continues to be extremely partisan, the ideological pendulum may be more of a swinging sledgehammer, as Republicans try to use their newfound control of Washington to break all the ratchet-teeth that Democrats have tried to build. And then make their own.