Misty May Wright and Dr. Donald Forsyth, Anthropology
This paper is to report the results of my study on policy-making in welfare reform. While interning at a special interest group for disability issues in Washington D. C., I conducted ethnographic research through ethnographic interviewing and participant observation. It was my intent to profile the culture of policy-makers, specifically in welfare reform, as part of a more extensive study to compare their culture to those affected by policy. I found that the primary markers of the policy-making culture are information exchange and meetings.
Information exchange is the term given to the game of chits played out by lobbyists and other politicians. Lobbyists can build relationships with elected or appointed politicians by providing or receiving information. When a lobbyist builds a reputation as an expert in a specific issue, or can provide prominent constituents for hearings and press conferences, or just keep them updated on grassroots movement of a particular issue, he or she builds clout to influence policymaking. When lobbyists learn of politicians adamant support on an issue, or the formation of a new Presidential committee, he or she can act more strategically to influence policy. These relationships are what makes a lobbyist successful and keeps his or her organization politically and financially alive.
Information exchanges are made primarily in the meetings a politician or constituent may attend. These meetings range from very private to very public or from highly formal or informal. They can be held among other lobbyists, with politicians, by party, or by the pro/con side of an issue. At these meetings is where information exchange occurs. Inside information, as well as public information is exchanged by parties present. These meetings and how act at this meetings is central to the influence lobbyists and other policy-makers have in implementing what they feel is most important.
These two markers combine to create a motive to gain the most chits. Chits are either information to be used to influence legislation or getting specific language in public policy. What becomes the goal of politicians and lobbyists is to get chits. The needs of a lobby organization or constituents themselves can easily become lost. Getting even a minor change in the wording of a bill requires so many chits, but doing so creates chits. For a lobbyist the goal to change a bill becomes more to have influence. Also, elected and/or appointed politicians must appease their chit-givers in to maintain broad enough power to be re-elected. Chits necessarily become a priority in their work.
The question now is what can be done to help legislation better fit the constituency that is affected. The constituency who is affected must be empowered with chits, or those who better understand their culture must be empowered with. There are many approaches to take, such as closer grassroots lobbying or greater voting power. That must not be decided until an adequate cultural profile of those who are affected by welfare reform can be used to guide policy-making decisions.