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McCubbins, Noll, and Weingast: Structure and process, politics and policy

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McCubbins, Noll, and Weingast. 1989. Structure and process, politics and policy: Administrative Arrangements and the political control o. Virgina Law Review 75:431-82.

SUMMARY [from a class handout]: In the same line of "Administrative Procedures as Instruments of Political Control," the authors state that structure and process are necessary strategies that politicians use to control bureaucratic behavior. To support this argument, McCubbins et al. use the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a case study.

Two main assumptions:

  • Elected political officials may differ over their desired policy outcomes. Therefore, structure and process can be viewed as mechanisms to limit politicians' opportunism (when a coalition is dissolved).
  • The problem of "history dependence" or "reactive enforcement" in legislative processes makes administrative procedures necessary strategies to control bureaucracy behavior. Any agency, in general, will not reproduce the policy outcome that was sought by the winning coalition.


  • Oversight has a limitaion: it is costly (financially and politically). Fire alarm is an option (it is cheaper than police patrol); however, it has limitations too. Fire alarm depends of the reputation and credibility of politicians when they threaten to punish an agency. Sometimes, agencies may not regard threats of punishment as credible.
  • Manipulating structure and process, on the other hand, has two advantages: A) it creates a decisional environment that causes the agency to be responsive to the constituency interests that were represented in the enacting coalition. B) It delays agency policymaking, and delays affect bureaucratic behavior. Agencies thus move slowly and publicly, giving politicians time to act before the status quo is changed.


Federal courts as third actors that can affect policy outcomes: Vague legislative mandates and weak standards for judicial review give courts an opportunity to shape policy as they see it. The risk is that courts' intervention can affect the "ideal" outcome that politicians (the winning coalition) desire. Therefore, structure and process can work as mechanisms that limit judicial decisions.