Do events matter?

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‘What makes people in and around government attend, at any given time, to some subjects and not to others?” That question comes from the opening page of John Kingdon’s classic work on agenda setting, and it speaks to all those who try to understand and predict what the state Legislature will do each year.

For Kingdon, the path toward policy change often begins with a “focusing event,” defined as “a disaster, crisis, personal experience, or powerful symbol (that) draws attention to some conditions more than to others.” Nationally, and in Iowa, however, events that fit this description have often failed to produce the sort of change predicted by scholars.

For example, consider gun control. Tragically, the nation has witnessed mass shootings in all levels of education (elementary, secondary, and postsecondary), at movie theaters, concerts, and even churches, and yet these events have not served as the catalysts for policy change that many people predicted. In fact, in some states, including Iowa, policy has gone in the opposite direction toward easing gun regulations.

The growing opioid crisis is yet another example. Every week, it seems, a story is published in a state or national media outlet documenting the horrible direct and indirect effects of this drug addiction.

This is not to say state legislators have failed to address pressing problems. Indeed, in 2014, state legislators graciously responded to the wishes of parents of children with recurring epileptic seizures by passing a bill allowing for cannabidiol as a form of relief. In 2017, a similar bill was passed expanding the conditions acceptable for use of this treatment.

Before the 2014 session, no one could have predicted that that would be the year when Iowa passed a bill allowing for a limited form of medical marijuana. The credit for this change can be traced to the relentless daily efforts of parents with epileptic children lobbying state legislators.

Sadly, other tragic events have recently gripped the state, including those relating to the opioid crisis, foster care and public safety regulations. Water quality issues have been around for years, and there now seems to be more urgency as the issue threatens intergovernmental relationships between cities, counties and the state.

While the Legislature may choose to address some or all of these issues in 2018, research shows that voting in legislatures (both in Congress and states) is more polarized than ever, thus diminishing the probability of the two parties coming together over a common concern. The fiscal condition of the state also remains tenuous and probably will dictate the general reach of any legislative action.

Perhaps because we are able to access news from a multitude of sources at all hours of day, we are less moved by extraordinary events and images. Pictures of women and children facing famine, isolation, and government oppression in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan, and other places have failed to result in significant action by the U.S. Congress or international governing bodies. As such, there is a real concern as to whether we have become desensitized to scenes of human suffering.

What if, in order to unlock your phone each day, you were presented with a story and image of local child suffering from food insecurity? Would donations to local food banks increase? Or, perhaps more practical, what if this newspaper published a story and image of an Iowa child affected by (insert any issue here) every Sunday? Would there be more legislative action on the issue? Would the state devote more resources to addressing it?

Back to the 2018 Iowa legislative session. What problems will state legislators attend to? What will be the “big issue” for the session? Those questions are becoming harder to answer as the policy arena seems less and less connected to a rational view of the world where problems are quickly addressed and alternatives are carefully considered.

To be clear, this is not to blame any one individual legislator, but rather, to point out how the collective forces of legislative dynamics result in certain outcomes. And in recent years, these dynamics have resulted in less focus on so-called focusing events.

• Christopher Larimer is an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa

Pints & Politics • Thursday, January 11 • C.S.P.S. Hall

Larimer will share his views and analysis with our Pints & Politics panel. He is the author of “Gubernatorial Stability in Iowa: A Stranglehold on Power,” and co-author of “The Public Policy Theory Primer” and “The Public Administration Theory Primer.” He’s also an occasional political analyst for KWWL and Iowa Public Radio.

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