are made, such as congressional votes or court rulings, and with good reason. These are important and highly visible moments. Some scholars, however, have tried to show that earlier stages in the process, when issues move on to the public agenda and the range of alternative responses is defined, can be just as important in determining the outcome of policy debates as these authoritative decisions (Bachrach and Baratz 1962; Crenson 1971; Kingdon 1984; Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Rochefort and Cobb 1994). Central to these studies are asymmetries of power that enable particular individuals and groups to influence what problems are taken up and what remedies are considered legitimate.
Empirically, it can be difficult to show what happened at these earlier stages and whether those events were decisive. With workers’ compensation, the evidence ranges from strongly circumstantial to clear and compelling. Comprehensive reform of workers’ compensation never came to a vote in Congress during the 20th century, so our focus must be on these earlier stages. Clearly, such reform was considered more than once. Each time, key individuals within the executive branch – Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security, Social Security officials in the late 1930s and 1940s, White House staff under Lyndon Johnson – decided that a fundamental challenge to states’ programs was politically unwise. They repeatedly noted how poor a job states were doing with workers’ compensation, and how formidable the stakeholders were. The program’s history shaped policy makers’ sense of the possible. It is striking that a major expansion of the national government’s role in regulating workplace safety (the OSH Act) was deemed more likely than a national takeover of workers’ compensation, or even uniform standards for state laws.
Without a strong push from the executive branch, fundamental change was unlikely. Proponents of continued state-level control had a clear advantage in Congress, which is particularly vulnerable to geographically dispersed pressure from locally powerful interests. The only time members of Congress approved change to workers’ compensation (i.e., the Black Lung program) was when they were sure it was minor and would not upset the basic framework of state-level control. The appropriate metaphor here is not the dog that did not bark. Workers’ compensation is the mean-tempered dog everyone learned to walk around. It is hard to imagine a better example of the “second face of power” (Bachrach and Baratz 1962), in which actions are never attempted because the chances of success seem so low.
Finally, at a more abstract level, this paper offers empirical support for recent arguments about path dependence in politics (Pierson 2000). The history of workers’ compensation provides an unusually clear case of the ways in which a program’s origins can shape its subsequent development. Perhaps the single most critical juncture in the program’s history occurred in the mid-1930s when policy makers agreed to increase the national government’s responsibility for a large number of needy groups – the elderly, the unemployed, the blind, poor mothers and children – but not injured workers. That decision, in turn, was shaped by several developments in the 1910s and 1920s: the rapid