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) “investing” in the policymaking 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 the factors that incentivize or inhibit MCs in using their time and energy to “invest” in legislative policymaking. A reading of the Federalist Papers, and indeed the primacy of Article I of the Constitution, makes it clear that the Framers intended for Congress to be the predominant branch of the federal government. Additionally, the constitutional powers of Congress are described in terms of its legislative authority; in short, Congress was created, if imperfectly, to make law. However, even a cursory overview of the legislative records of MCs shows that they are often not entirely responsive to this charge. Members vary greatly in their habits of legislative policymaking, across multiple dimensions. Some MCs are far more active than others, introducing dozens of bills during the terms of their service while other members introduce little if any legislation. Members also differ widely in terms of whether they focus on a limited set of substantive issues or instead become legislative generalists. Additionally, members are not equally consistent in the degree to which they concentrate on a substantive issue across time. Although some MCs sustain their attention on an issue across their tenures in Congress, others shift their focus from term to term. In short, some members of Congress are true “policy wonks,” while others are minimally committed to the legislative process.
Perhaps surprisingly, political scientists know relatively little about this variation in legislative behavior. Accordingly, in my dissertation I present and test a theory of what I call “policy investment.” I argue that there are two possible explanations for the differences we see in how committed members are to using their time and resources in the policymaking process. First, members might be motivated by extrinsic benefits that flow from investing in policy. In other words, members might stand to be more successful electorally, to advance their careers, and to achieve their legislative objectives if they commit to the policymaking process. Additionally, members might also pursue policy because of its intrinsic benefits. Because of their individual backgrounds, characteristics of their constituencies, or the institutional position they hold in Washington, DC, members may perceive policy-related behavior as important or useful to them even if it does not does not obviously redound to their benefit. In short, the dissertation is designed to test these two hypotheses and assess how extrinsic and intrinsic motivations interact to motivate policy investment.
In the first empirical chapter of my dissertation, I use members’ bill introductions from the 101st to 110th Congresses (1989-2009) to develop a measure of policy investment. Roughly paralleling the approach that mathematical ecologists use to capture biological diversity, I draw on measures used in information theory and ecology to identify three main components of policy investment: intensity, specialization, and consistency. I combine these measures into an index value that summarizes the extent to which a member’s behavior corresponds to a “policy invested” model of lawmaking.
The second and third empirical chapters investigate the extrinsic and intrinsic benefits hypotheses. First, I test for relationships between policy investment and electoral, career, or policymaking benefits. Then, I examine how individual and contextual factors are related to policy investment, as well as how policy investment varies across time. The analyses that I have completed for these chapters suggest some intriguing results. Thus far, I have found only weak relationships between policy investment and electoral or career outcomes, suggesting that the externally obvious benefits of policy investment are diffuse. I find stronger and more consistent relationships between investments and features of MCs’ backgrounds and their political contexts.
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 working 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. We are preparing to send this paper out for review again after presenting updated results at MPSA this spring. My second project, currently under review, 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.