The Journal of Politics


Policy Punctuations: U.S. Budget Authority, 1947–1995

Bryan D. Jonesa1, Frank R. Baumgartnera2 and James L. Truea3

a1 University of Washington

a2 Texas A&M University

a3 Lamar University


Baumgartner and Jones (1993) described a process of punctuated equilibrium in their study of policymaking in the United States since World War II. Evidence was drawn from a series of particular issue-areas, but the model has implications for all areas of policymaking. In this paper, we explore the validity of this approach with a new dataset that tabulates congressional budget authority at the Office of Management and Budget subfunction level across all areas of the federal budget for the entire postwar period.

We find that government spending is characterized by much greater change than is typically portrayed in the literature, even if there is great stability for most categories most of the time. In addition, overall patterns of spending have been affected by two large-scale punctuations. These punctuations divide national spending into three epochs: one of postwar adjustment, lasting until FY 1956; one of robust growth, lasting from 1956 through 1974, and one of restrained growth, beginning in FY 1976. We test the epoch hypothesis against three plausible rival hypotheses: changes in the robustness of the postwar economy; partisan divisions; and public opinion. The epoch hypothesis survives all of these rivals whether modeled individually or together. This paper provides empirical evidence that punctuations occur, not just in some programs or subsystems, but also throughout government.

(Accepted August 02 1996)

(Received May 01 1997)

Bryan D. Jones is professor of political science, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.

Frank R. Baumgartner is professor of political science, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4348.

James L. True is assistant professor in political science, Lamar University, Beaumont, TX. 77710.