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An Analysis of the Punctuated Equilibrium Model Applied to Congressional Approval of Passenger Facility Charges




Hutto, William

Type of Degree



Political Science


In 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that airports could charge passengers using their facilities a Passenger Facility Charge (PFC), which was commonly called a “head tax.” The imposing of PFCs by airports had been challenged in Indiana and New Hampshire by Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines, respectively. Even though the Supreme Court ruled that PFCs are constitutional, Congress voted to ban them in 1973. Seventeen years later in 1990, however, Congress reversed itself and once more allowed airports to charge PFCs. This significant policy reversal raises the questions of how PFCs reappeared on the agenda and why Congress changed its previous position on the issue. Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones have proposed the use of the punctuated equilibrium model to address these types of agenda setting questions. Baumgartner and Jones argue that dramatic policy shifts occur with changes in the issue’s image coupled with changes in venue. A change in one of these factors can lead to a change in the other. When this occurs, a positive feedback mechanism begins that “punctuates” the existing equilibrium, which then causes a policy change to occur. The authors also contend that policy entrepreneurs and interest groups can play key roles in causing a change in a policy’s image and the venue in which it is considered. This work seeks to determine if the punctuated equilibrium model is valid for the PFC issue. Quantitative and qualitative methods are applied to determine if there are any discernable changes in image and/or venue as predicted by the model. In addition, the data collected are analyzed to discern if any policy entrepreneurs and/or interest groups played a role in the PFC policy shift. The study concludes that a change in image occurred leading up to the 1990 change in policy, but there was no corresponding shift in venue as predicted by Baumgartner and Jones. The study’s conclusions suggest reasons why a venue shift may not be applicable in this case. However, as predicted by the model a policy entrepreneur and airport interest groups did play key roles leading up to the policy shift. Overall, the model performs well and has proved to be helpful in understanding how the PFC issue reached the national agenda in 1990 and why Congress reversed its earlier decision.