I am a scholar of American politics who is interested in understanding the factors that shape the policymaking process. In that context, my primary research focus is on Congress, and specifically on legislative behavior. My dissertation research investigates the causes and consequences of members of Congress (MCs) “committing” to the legislative process, in the sense of adopting an active, specialized, and consistent pattern of legislative behavior. More broadly, I am interested in how the legislative, administrative, and legal systems help or hinder responsive and efficient policymaking, considering what scholars of political behavior have learned about democratic citizenship and mass-elite linkages. In sum, I look for my research to help fellow scholars and other audiences understand how the American political system generates policy outputs, or fails to do so.
My dissertation investigates why some members of Congress (MCs) commit themselves to lawmaking in the pursuit of changing public policy – in other words, why some MCs behave as policy wonks. While the Framers envisioned that Congress would be the policymaking engine of the federal government and that some MCs would become master legislators, today Congress is routinely criticized for dysfunction and gridlock. In this context, the behavior of policy wonks is of normative and practical interest, but there remains relatively little research that focuses squarely on these members. I conceptualize policy wonks as MCs who commit to legislating by adopting intense, specialized, and consistent legislative agendas, and I identify policy wonks with a novel measure of legislative commitment based on these three components and using MCs’ slates of bill sponsorships from 1989 through 2008. Building on previous work on legislative entrepreneurship, I argue that MCs commit to legislating and act as policy wonks based on a strategic calculation that weighs the benefits that flow from this behavior against its costs. I find that legislative commitment is associated with MCs’ institutional positions, the characteristics of their districts, and future career advancement and legislative success. The implications of the research are mixed. While some MCs conform with the Framers’ expectations that they be committed legislators, not all the incentives in Congress are aligned to support MCs acting as policy wonks.
Other Current Research
In addition to my dissertation, I have two ongoing projects that flow from this agenda. With Bill Bernhard and Tracy Sulkin, I have a paper that examines the consequences of congressional scandals. Using an original dataset, we ask how being involved in a scandal changes MCs’ legislative behavior. We show that MCs are less active and less specialized after a scandal, while other MCs are less likely to support their work. This paper has been invited for revision and resubmission a Political Research Quarterly.
My second project is a collaboration with Benjamin Kantack, a former Illinois graduate student, that explores how political leaders’ rhetoric shapes citizens’ preferences on gun control policy. Using an experimental dataset that leverages the occurrence of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, we assess how issue frames and salience interact to influence public attitudes towards gun control. We find that pro-gun control arguments fail to increase positive attitudes toward gun control measures, and we conclude that the gun control debate is unlikely to prompt changes in federal policy.
Copies of my working papers or chapters of my dissertation are available upon request.