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In United States politics, the iron triangle is a term used by political scientists to describe the policy-making relationship among the congressional committees, the bureaucracy (executive) (sometimes called "government agencies"), and interest groups.
For example, within the federal government the three sides often consist of: various congressional committees, which are responsible for funding government programs and operations and then providing oversight of them; the federal agencies (often Independent agencies), which are responsible for the regulation of those affected industries; and last, the industries themselves, as well as their trade associations and lobbying groups, which benefit, or seek benefit, from these operations and programs.
Probably the earliest concept of the "iron triangle" was on January 17, 1919 by Ralph Pulitzer. It was the post World War I era when Pulitzer wrote about the Paris Peace Conference and the new relationships between the allied Governments. He stated,
An often-used example of the term is with reference to the military-industrial complex, with Congress (and the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services), defense contractors, and the U.S. Department of Defense forming the iron triangle. The term iron triangle has been widely used by political scientists outside the United States and is today an accepted term in the field.
Central to the concept of an iron triangle is the assumption that bureaucratic agencies, as political entities, seek to create and consolidate their own power base. In this view an agency's power is determined by its constituency, not by its consumers. (For these purposes, "constituents" are politically active members sharing a common interest or goal; consumers are the expected recipients of goods or services provided by a governmental bureaucracy and are often identified in an agency's written goals or mission statement.)
Much of what some see as bureaucratic dysfunction may be attributable to the alliances formed between the agency and its constituency. The official goals of an agency may appear to be thwarted or ignored altogether at the expense of the citizenry it is designed to serve.
The need of a bureaucracy for a constituency sometimes leads to an agency's cultivation of a particular clientele. An agency may seek out those groups (within its policy jurisdiction) that will make the best allies and give it the most clout within the political arena.
Often, especially in a low-level bureaucracy, the consumers (the supposed beneficiaries of an agency's services) do not qualify as power brokers and thus make poor constituents. Large segments of the public have diffused interests, seldom vote, may be rarely or poorly organized and difficult to mobilize, and are often lacking in resources or financial muscle. Less-educated and poorer citizens, for example, typically make the worst constituents from an agency's perspective.
Private or special interest groups, on the other hand, possess considerable power as they tend to be well-organized, have plenty of resources, are easily mobilized, and are extremely active in political affairs, through voting, campaign contributions, and lobbying, as well as proposing legislation themselves.
Thus it may be in an agency's assets interest to switch its focus from its officially-designated consumers to a carefully selected clientele of constituents that will aid the agency in its quest for greater political influence.
In the United States, bureaucratic power is exercised in the Congress, and particularly in congressional committees and subcommittees. By aligning itself with selected constituencies, an agency may be able to affect policy outcomes directly in these committees and subcommittees. This is where an iron triangle may manifest itself. The picture above displays the concept.
At one corner of the triangle are interest groups (constituencies). These are the powerful interests groups that influence Congressional votes in their favor and can sufficiently influence the re-election of a member of Congress in return for supporting their programs. At another corner sit members of Congress who also seek to align themselves with a constituency for political and electoral support. These congressional members support legislation that advances the interest group's agenda. Occupying the third corner of the triangle are bureaucrats, who are often pressured by the same powerful interest groups their agency is designated to regulate. The result is a three-way, stable alliance that is sometimes called a subgovernment because of its durability, impregnability, and power to determine policy.
Consumers are often left out in the cold by this arrangement. An iron triangle can result in the passing of very narrow, pork-barrel policies that benefit a small segment of the population. The interests of the agency's constituency (the interest groups) are met, while the needs of consumers (which may be the general public) are passed over. That public administration may result in benefiting a small segment of the public in this way may be viewed as problematic for the popular concept of democracy if the general welfare of all citizens is sacrificed for very specific interests. This is especially so if the legislation passed neglects or reverses the original purpose for which the agency was established. Some maintain that such arrangements are consonant with (and are natural outgrowths of) the democratic process, since they frequently involve a majority block of voters implementing their will through their representatives in government..
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