What is Public Policy?
July 22, 2015


Public policy is one of the terms that we often hear, but few of us understand.  It is the system of laws, regulations, and funding around a set of issues, adopted by government, which defines its priorities.  All government action in the United States – local, state, and federal – stems from the U.S. Constitution.

The United States, along with most state and local governments, has many public policies.  We have policies to provide a free public education from kindergarten through high school.  We provide an infrastructure – streets, sidewalks, lighting, parks, and sewers.  

  • We make some effort to conserve our natural resources and prevent pollution.  
  • We prohibit legal discrimination in a variety of categories and help people who have suffered discrimination.  
  • We protect health and safety by regulating food, water, medicine, restaurants, smoking, landfills, garbage collection, sewage treatment facilities, hospitals, schools, motor vehicles, housing, nuclear facilities, public transportation, public utilities, and workplaces.  
  • We regulate banks, securities dealers, insurance companies, and other financial institutions – at least superficially.  
  • We provide the National Weather Service, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Library of Congress, and college financial aid.  
  • We promote public service, refugee resettlement, historic preservation, international relations, entrepreneurship, and voting.

Then there are the big ones – health, welfare, abortion, and marriage.

Once we decide to adopt those policies, then we propose, debate, and enact specific laws to implement our policies.

What the Constitution Says
Recently, a loud, obnoxious, and coached minority has been complaining that the federal government is usurping rights guaranteed to the people and the states by the Constitution.  Their primary argument is that the terms listed above aren't in the Constitution. They're right.  And they're wrong.  Those terms are not in the Constitution.  Yet, while the Constitution does contain a specific list of the duties of each branch of government, it also contains some very broad language that authorizes the government to expand that list.

Most of that general language appears in Article I, Section 8.  That section requires Congress to ". . . provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States …." It requires Congress to regulate commerce and “… make all laws necessary to execute those powers …. "

Throughout our history, and with endless debate, various Congresses decided that it is in the best interest – the general welfare – of the United States to regulate or provide the things on this list.  Congress makes those decisions through our standard process of introducing legislation, committee review, floor debate, voting, and lobbying.

You Can Change Public Policy
The census is one of the primary tools that the government uses to collect the data that it needs to determine public policies on domestic issues, including health, education, employment, housing, poverty, and living standards.  Others include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Congressional Research Service, executive branch staff members, and expert testimony at public hearings.

I know that you and your family have benefitted from many of our nation's public policies.  If you want to influence Congress and public policy then, by all means, lobby your legislators.  Phone, email, write, comment on proposed regulations, and attend public hearings and town hall meetings.  But please, be civil about it.

For more information
USA.gov - Every local, state, tribal, and federal government agency
Read the Constitution
White House
Supreme Court

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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

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