Economics Department


Date of this Version

June 1998


Published by Journal of Economic Issues Vol. XXXII, No.2, June 1998. Copyright © 1991 Journal of Economic Issues. Used by Permission.


This is a case study designed to test the thesis (drawn from political science literature) that the power of "subgovernments" in the United States has decreased and, in particular, claims a demise in the power of the atomic energy subgovernment as one proof for the thesis. The subgovernment approach to explaining policymaking in the United States "is based on the observation that relatively small groups of actors dominate certain sectors of the political system" [Duffy 1997, 4]. One function of such subgovernments is to redistribute income upward through the cost-plus reimbursement terms of government contracts.

The subgovernmental institutions-also referred to as subsystems, iron triangles, or policy monopolies [McCool 1990]-are described as "small, stable groups of actors, both public and private, that dominate policy in specific issue areas" [Duffy 1997, 3]. Robert Duffy characterizes a subgovernmental group as typically consisting of mid-level executive bureaucrats, a committee or commission, and a client group (or special interest group, in McCool [1990]). Each actor or unit associated with a subgovernment can potentially benefit from a program's success either politically or economically. Consequently, because of complementary goals, a policy monopoly emerges that protects the shared interests of the units. Policymaking within this monopoly is characterized by quiet negotiations and compromise. Moreover, policy shifts are usually restricted to incremental changes to avoid attracting the attention of those outside the subgovernment.

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