Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Iron Triangle

Teaching the Triangle

I forget the year, but I remember the deafening groan heard nationwide when the Iron Triangle appeared on the Free Response section of the APGOPO Exam. Students and teachers alike were first amazed this was on the test and then dismayed that so little time had been collectively spent teaching and learning the concept. In fact, students who were using the John Q. Wilson book had never heard of the Iron Triangle unless it was a topic of their their teachers lectures. The concept is covered in a different manner with different nomenclature by Wilson.

I have always been big on teaching the Iron Triangle concept. I understand that many college professors will argue that it is over simplistic (true), demonstrates a Pollyanna approach to law making (true), and can be even misleading if not taught correctly (also true). Yet I cling to this model of law making for high school students for several simple reasons. First, it does graphically demonstrate the necessity of all three entities needed in creating good legislation. The simplicity of the Triangle is its strength. Students can relate the inter-governmental relationship between sub-committees, the departments of the bureaucracy, and the clients for whom laws are crafted. While over simplified, it is something they will remember for years.

Second, I strongly believe the Iron Triangle is a perfect way for us to bring some relevancy to the topic by incorporating current events into this topic. Since I am in Kansas, I always first demonstrate the Triangle to the students using an Agricultural scenario. The Congressional Committee is the Agricultural Committee, the bureaucracy is obviously the Department of Agriculture, and the client/interest group is the farmer across the street from our school as well as the Kansas Wheat Grower, the Farm Bureau, giant end users such as General Mills. My bill usually concerns wheat subsidies which allow us to discuss the fact that Kansas receives more government grants and aid than it actually pays in taxes. The kids can understand these concepts even though none of them actually live on a farm.

For the last couple of years my second example has been the highly controversial Air Force Tanker program. Since Wichita's economy is highly tied into Boeing Military Aircraft the tanker program is salient for the students. Many of my kids have unemployed aircraft builders in their family or neighborhood. Discussing current (and recent past) events on this issue and tying it to the Iron Triangle makes tons of sense to everyone. It sure brings the level of interest in a rather dull topic up in a hurry. It also gives us a chance to explore as a class what happens when the Iron Triangle goes wrong.

Finally, using the Iron Triangle model does allow us to ask the question: "What could possibility be wrong with this system?" (See the 2003 AP question) It seldom takes long for my kids to look at the triangle on the board and understand that PAC money could "buy" votes for committee members, that the Bureaucracy and the Interest Groups might not see eye to eye and cause conflict on the information Congress received as feedback, and that Committee oversight might cause a conflict of interest when the Bureaucracy was supplying information to the committee. I seldom have to pull these concepts out of the they look at the board they become rather obvious.

While I seriously doubt the Free Response portion of the test will ever have an Iron Triangle question again, I still maintain this is an important concept to work on. I encourage you to seek out good local examples for your presentation on the Iron Triangle. Or, as the nation follows the Health Care Reform bills as they pass through House and Senate these can become the focus of your lecture.

It was once said that two thing you don't want to watch being made are laws and sausage. As a born and bread Wisconsin boy I saw a lot of sausage made as a kid, and it wasn't all that bad. Watching laws being made can be down right exciting. You can call me "old school," but that doesn't necessarily mean "bad school"!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Teaching the House of Representatives

A Daunting Task Involving Much More Than a List of Terms

This week I will begin to start the teaching of the institutions of our national government to my AP class. This is always a daunting task knowing that a large percentage of the AP Exam will be centered on these institutions. The multiple choice questions don't worry me so much. Based on released exams from the past, many of the questions on the multiple choice section dealing with the institutions of government seem to be definition in nature...that is to say, if the kids know what a sub-committee is, they will be able to figure out the answer to the question. This isn't true of the Free Response portion of the exam, however.

If you look at the questions on the Free Response portion of the AP Exam, these often involve so much more than just knowing the vocabulary. The folks at AP don't expect the kids just to understand the structure of the House or Senate, or the roles of the Congressmen in committees, or the influence of interest groups in the legislative process. The questions posed to the students will often involve the juxtaposition of their understanding of Congress with one of the other branches of government.

This means that our job in preparing the students for the exam (and indeed for a life long understanding of the government) involves making sure that they understand the links between the House and Senate and the White House, the Federal Bureaucracy, and the Courts. This means that topics such as Committee and Sub-Committee interaction with the White House staff and Executive Offices need to be discussed. It means that the Iron Triangle needs to be thoroughly understood. And it also means that the tailoring of legislation to withstand judicial scrutiny must be become a topic of inquiry. These and many, many topics need to be touched upon.

It has taken me the better part of 40 years to get a good handle on Congress and its interaction. I don't find it surprising that they say it takes a freshman Representative his/her entire first term just to understand their jobs. And yet, we are pushing our students to get a solid insight on this complex issue in just the two or three weeks we have to dedicate to the topic. Daunting!!!

I do not believe that the textbooks or even Hippocampus can fully do the job of making the connections for the kids. That is why I believe the most important thing we can do for them is to get them following the news and really getting connected with all stories dealing with Congress. Right now we have the Health Care bills that are getting great press. The news stories in the weekly magazines and the newspapers are a tremendous source of real world examples of the inner workings of Congress. As the press is following Committee hearings, interest groups both pro and con on health reform, and the debates within the chambers of the House and Senate we can find many real world examples to help the students really get a grasp on the complexity of our legislative process. At the moment in history, the controversy of health care reform has given the congressional process a transparency seldom afforded. Take advantage of this wonderful teaching tool and bring the real world into your lesson plans.