Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Illustrate the political and policy logistics of incrementalism and how they promote bureaucratic stability.
  • Explore how incrementalism and congressional politics made it difficult to close outdated military bases in the United States and how Congress established institutional procedures to overcome that difficulty.
  • Describe how and why members of Congress established institutional procedures to help them overcome a collective-action problem and to reconcile a dilemma posed by a conflict between their policy and re-election goals.

Bureaucratic Incrementalism

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior has a purpose.

The development of bureaucratic agencies is subject to both the goals of bureaucrats and the goals of the members of Congress who create and fund agencies, departments, and programs.

In pursuit of their goals to be re-elected, attain influence, and make good public policy, members of Congress face powerful incentives to expand and protect the bureaucracies that benefit their districts.

Economist Charles E. Lindblom argued that American public policy making is incremental; that is, policies change slowly over time. The logic of incremental policy making arises from the bureaucrat’s goal of maximizing the agency’s budget and influence in tandem with the goals of members of Congress.

Incremental changes in public policy have both a policy logic and a political logic.

Policy logic: incrementalism serves to promote stable, accretive policy development. As a result of this pattern of policy development, the government slowly focuses (by making what Lindblom called “successive limited comparisons”) on the ideal policy program and level of spending.

Political logic: this stable development of policy also serves the political goals of policy makers. Members of Congress like bringing home projects and federal funds to their districts. Indeed, with each successive year, members can bring more government funds and benefits to their constituents and, in turn, shore up their prospects for re-election.

However, a shortcoming of incremental policy making is that it cannot keep pace with quick and drastic changes.

Congressional Goals and Military Bases

During the Cold War, the United States appropriated massive amounts of federal dollars to build up the military.

Policy Logic: In a time of perpetual “war” and a race between the United States and the Soviet Union for military superiority, important policy goals were met by the military build-up.

Political Logic: At the same time, members of Congress would run for re-election by claiming credit for establishing, maintaining, and expanding military bases in their congressional districts.

The cooling off of the Cold War and the eventual demise of the Soviet Union led to a widespread recognition that America had more military bases than it needed and that the government could save billions of dollars by closing obsolete bases.

Still, because of the political logic of incrementalism and members’ goals to be re-elected, few members wanted to close military bases in their own districts.

Answer the following questions:

1. How did the Cold War provide for a congruence of House members’ and senators’ goals of good public policy and re-election?
2. How did the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of the Cold War threat lead to a conflict in members’ policy and political goals?
3. How might the political logic of incrementalism get in the way of the government adequately responding to the changed policy context? What happens when the goal of maintaining good policy is not reinforced by politics but rather is in conflict?

Military Base Closures

Base Closures and Realignments
Total number of closures → 91
Total number of realignments → 54

Closures Affecting More Than 100 Employees
Total number → 25
Democratic House members → 16
Republican House members → 9
Estimated savings (20-year period) → $5,333,000,000

Source: Mike Mills, “Base Closings: The Political Pain Is Limited” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, December 31, 1988, pp. 3625–29. Data compiled by author.

Examining the Collective-Action Principle

The Collective-Action Principle: all politics is collective action. Moreover, the impediments to the collective-action problem must be overcome.

The savings of over $5.3 billion constitute a considerable collective public good to be achieved by closing the 25 military bases. But members of Congress do not want bases in their own congressional districts to close.

As political scientist Kenneth R. Mayer wrote, “Military bases are a classic example of a ‘collective dilemma.’…Individual legislators who rationally pursue their own interests want to protect bases in their districts, even though the collective result of that behavior – a bloated and costly base system – is something none of them prefer. …The conventional wisdom holds that base closures end congressional careers, and few legislators are willing to sacrifice themselves” (p. 396).

How do you overcome the collective-action problem when many individual members have incentives to keep the bases open?

Examining the Policy Principle

The Policy Principle: political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures.

Congress established special procedures that would make it impossible for individual members to pursue their individual re-election motivations by protecting their individual bases: a “Commission on Base Realignment and Closure,” which recommended these bases for closures and established a list of bases to be closed.

Congress provided that it could not amend the base closings commission’s list but rather had to vote to either approve or disapprove the list in its entirety. That is, Congress sought to “bundle” all of the base closures to keep individual members from trying to protect their districts. In doing so, Congress also provided protection for members from unhappy voters in their districts.

Answer the following questions:

4. How would the establishment of a panel on military base closings help overcome the problem of collective action and help Congress respond to the changed foreign-policy environment?
5. Why would members of Congress sacrifice their autonomy on making military policy by establishing such a commission?
6. If establishing such a commission made it more difficult for members to achieve their re-election goals, why might they support it?


  • Lindblom, Charles. “The Science of Muddling Through.” Public Administration Review 19: 2 (1959): 79–88.
  • Mayer, Kenneth R. “Closing Military Bases (Finally): Solving Collective Dilemmas through Delegation.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 20: 3 (1995): 393–413.
  • Mills, Mike. “Base Closings: The Political Pain is Limited.” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, December 31, 1988, pp. 3625–29.

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