Home > Current, Legal, Politics > The Full Legacy of Public Policy Decisions

The Full Legacy of Public Policy Decisions

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is in the news these days, and not inappropriately. Tales of bureaucratic inefficiencies are legion, of course, and maddening as it is that this particular tale directly and significantly affects the lives of those arguably least deserving of abuse at the cumbersome hand of the federal government, it cannot be surprising that bureaucratic inefficiency adversely affects people in meaningful ways. This is not an unacknowledged problem.

Probably coincidentally, this recent spotlight on the VA’s lethal shortcomings has illuminated another, less recognized and thankfully less lethal, feature of our public policy apparatus: governmental policy decisions can give birth to longer, sometimes much longer, legacies than likely were ordinarily contemplated at the time the decision was made. The VA, of course, is not immune to this effect, as evidenced by the fact that there is a Wilkesboro, North Carolina woman receiving a monthly payment from the VA in ongoing satisfaction of a pension for her father’s military service in the Civil War. The story of Irene Triplett and her father, Mose Triplett, is a somewhat interesting one from a historical perspective, as is to be expected of such stories.

The Triplett family’s story also serves as a reminder that public policy decisions can be fraught with costs– broadly defined– that extend, in some respects unpredictably, long beyond their commonly anticipated scope. This is as true in war as it is in any other public undertaking. In 1974, there were nearly 28,000 families receiving veterans’ benefits as a result of service in Spanish-American War, fought for three and a half months in 1898. Last year, the VA paid $2.2 billion to nearly 219,000 families for service in World War II, which ended in 1945. (Click the image and scroll to the bottom of the page for interactive functionality.)


Rarely, one must believe, do policy makers or citizens contemplate at the time the country enters into a military conflict that the financial costs of the decision to go to war might extend over 150 years beyond the conclusion of that war. And while the discussion thus far has emphasized the long life of the financial commitment of an engagement in armed conflict, we are only beginning to recognize the scope of the legacy of the real medical and social costs of armed conflict that the tallying of VA benefits is unlikely to capture in full.

This phenomenon is not limited to the military context, of course. Many laws have “sunset” provisions that purport to set an expiration date, which legislatures subsequently may extend, for the legislation. Judicially enunciated policies can operate similarly. The Supreme Court justices themselves are an example. President Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens as an associate justice in 1975. (President Richard Nixon appointed Stevens to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970.) Justice Stevens served on the Supreme Court until 2010, four years after Ford died. Ford thus continued to influence public policy from the grave. Indeed, Stevens, who is still alive, continues to influence public policy through speeches and other appearances to this day.

Humans are not great at contemplating the long-term consequences of their actions. This cognitive deficiency extends, with consequences, to their enactment of public policies. Rather than punt difficult decisions to future generations, the better approach may be to limit such policies to short-term effectiveness with opportunities to reconsider them down the road.

Categories: Current, Legal, Politics
  1. June 2, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Classic Ford shoutout.

    The two main options presented here are either indefinite effect of legislation, or sunset clauses (that seem to be regularly renewed as they are due to a fear of electoral reprisal) thus giving the illusion of legislative pragmatism, with little in effect (headlines like, “Congress must vote to renew ” sounds different from “Congress is voting to re-enact sunsetting legislation”). Also, the sunset metaphor has a very periodic nature to it.

    The question that I want to present (and then promptly answer) is, is there a third option? Can we allow legislation to die in some reasonable acceptable fashion? I think, of course, that the answer is yes. Suppose the VA benefits simply fade away. Continue as they are for some number of years and then decay away every year thereafter to zero. This allows legislative effects to die gracefully.

    • AD
      June 2, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      I agree that there are alternatives, but I’m not sure what you’ve described is anything other than a specialized sunset provision.

      I also don’t mean to commit myself to the position that it necessarily is a problem that policy actions have long-lasting consequences. To the extent there is a problem here, though, I think it’s with our own ability to perceive the long-term costs of a decision at the time we make it. The answer may be to work to improve outcomes by improving ourselves rather than merely tinkering with the government apparatus.

      The examples above are generally financial or deal with readily monetized costs. The challenge of comprehension is even greater when it comes to health and environmental consequences.

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