Thursday, September 21, 2006

From Inspiration to Legislation

Let me pause from our usual practice of discussing news events in order to praise a book that will be very handy to those of us who teach American politics. In From Inspiration to Legislation: How an Idea Becomes a Bill (Pearson Prentice Hall), Amy Black looks at the origins and fate of the Save Havens Support Act, a measure to help states prevent infant abandonment. (Declaration of interest: the author was my student, and she mentions me in the acknowledgements.) The book stems from her experiences as an APSA Congressional Fellow in the office of Representative Melissa Hart (R-PA).

There have been plenty of case studies of how bills have become law, such as Eric Redman's The Dance of Legislation. This book, however, is unique in that it focuses on the early stages of the process: how lawmakers and their staffs try to identify a problem and craft a policy response that makes sense.

For courses in public policy analysis, it offers valuable firsthand insights into initiation and estimation. She explains how legislative staffers tap experts in and out of the government to get a handle on policy issues. In this case, the author quickly learned that there is little reliable information about infant abandonment, which may take different forms. The final legislation asked HHS to gather the missing data.

For courses in Congress, it fills a surprising gap in the literature. Many works ably deal with electoral politics, committee assignments, and roll call voting, but very few answer a simple question that many students sensibly ask: How do you go about writing a bill?

For courses in introductory American government, it puts the issue in the broader context of federalism and interest-group politics.

The book is valuable in another way. In many cases, partisan polarization has kept congressional Democrats and Republicans from cooperating on issues of common concern. In this instance, however, the pro-life Representative Hart shrewdly sponsored a bill that could appeal to pro-choice Democrats. From Inspiration to Legislation is a reminder that lawmakers can still occasionally reason together.

No comments: