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The "Iron Triangle" is a term used to refer to the relationships between regulators, the regulated and -- in the U.S. federal context -- Congress.

It distills the obvious but somewhat obscure fact that individual regulatory decisions tend to be of interest to a relatively small number of actors, that those actors thus learn very well what they can about those who regulate them, and that they make their causes known to power centers that can influence those regulators, such as Representatives and Senators with some interest in the actor or in the regulatory decision.

The simplicity of the triangle illustrates that each "corner" relates to the other two. The "iron" element indicates the strength of those relations. As the term has been used in quasi-popular expressions, it comes with a whiff of improper public exclusion from the deliberative process by which the supposedly independent agency is to arrive at its regulatory decision, typically either a rule (generally applicable) or a license (particularly applicable).

The Iron Triangle thus also implicitly indicates the fact that regulatory decisions about complex activity are based on a considerable knowledge base. This is indicated by the number of PhDs who work at EPA, or the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot license a nuclear power plant without knowledge of reactors, uranium, cooling systems, etc.

In this rarefied world, public participation is discontinuous and of irregular weight. (How many members of the public understand atomic reactors enough to meaningfully engage with NRC licensing?). This caused activists in the 1960s and 1970s (inspired by Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us" and "Silent Spring" and Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed") to question the regulators' adherence to "the public interest", as they saw it, in their deliberations and decisions.

The high cost of acquiring influential knowledge, to say nothing of sustaining the kind of ongoing effort necessary to participate in federal procedures, is more easily borne by those with the most at stake in the choices facing the regulators, that is -- the regulated. The regulated -- at the federal level -- are almost by definition big corporations with considerable income streams implicated by rule making and license granting. From the activist standpoint, this corporate self-interest, and its involvement in the regulatory process, leads to decision-making by regulators at the expense of the public interest, as they see it.

And so they focus when possible on their point-of-entry, members of Congress and, in the case of general policy agreement, other members of the Presidential administration in power (although for literary preference this fourth corner fails to

make the triangle into a square -- it is more of a second floor at that corner of the triangle).

Inevitably, these political corners lead beyond, to the constituencies so represented, to activate concern and mobilize support -- thereby strengthening the activist voice

with more of what it possesses, links to the public. Content-sharing activism, web communities and other non-traditional forms of association and speech enable such participants to influence officeholders, or defeat them if necessary.

An early cousin of the "Iron Triangle" is the more abstract, "agency capture." This term was coined to reflect the fact that the specialized knowledge bases upon which such procedures were based would inevitably result in the government agency in question hiring experts from industry and vice versa. This in turn would eliminate the independence of the agency and subvert its official task to monied interests.

Unsurprisingly, the experts would move between employers through the fabled "revolving door," which in depicting easy departure and arrival emphasized an us-versus-them strain in the activist view of officialdom.

This is played out at a partisan level when Obama Administration critics attack EPA for hiring high-ranking policymakers from activist organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, or in the Bush Administration when critics scored the hiring of oil industry executives to police energy policy.

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13y ago
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10y ago

The iron triangle depicts the relationship of the bureaucracy, interest groups, and the congressional committees who are responsible for making policies. The iron triangle creates a three-way stable alliance, known as a sub government, which is durable, impregnable, and has the power to determine policies.

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14y ago

A small and informal but relatively stable set of bureaucrats, legislators and lobbyists who are concerned with promoting a particular interest

A three-way alliance among legislators, bureaucrats, and interest groups to make or preserve policies that benefit their respective interests.

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9y ago

In politics, the term Iron Triangle refers to the day-to-day workings of three different bodies: Interest groups and their lobbyists, Congress, and government agencies. These groups are seen to work together to achieve the actual work of government.

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10y ago

Stable, permanent relationship between agencies, congressional committees, and an interest group -plato

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15y ago

It's the dinner bell on a ranch usually.

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Q: What is the significance of the iron triangle?
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