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How Policymaking Works in Washington, D.C.

Policy is not made in a vacuum. It isn’t generated fully formed in the secret laboratories of policy wonks plugging away in Washington, D.C., think tanks — at least not always. Nor is it restricted to the traditional legislative branch. Rather, policy ideas can originate in many different places and take on many different forms.

Domestic policy can originate with either the president or the congress, but often its true genesis can be traced outside of government.

Foreign policy can be proactive — seeking to launch new international initiatives or build new foreign relationships — or reactive — responding to the actions or requests of a foreign government or leader or simply reacting to a change in circumstances (such as the death of a longtime leader or the overthrow of a government in power).

Truly anybody can think up a new federal policy. But not all policy is good policy, and not every policy idea leads to action. In fact, most policy ideas never leave the confines of the minds that dream them up. (Perhaps citizens should be thankful for that; not all dreams need be realized.)

If policy ideas are just as likely to originate from a top-flight think tank as they are from a veteran legislator or imaginative lobbyist, why do some ideas become policy while others don’t? Simply put, because ideas are not enough. Ideas are a dime a dozen, no matter what a highly paid and highly vague strategist-for-hire may tell you.

Navigating the policymaking cycle successfully is what distinguishes the daydreams from the future policies of the federal government.

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