Political Science PhD candidate focusing on American institutions


A selection of ongoing research projects


My dissertation looks at how Congress uses public policy information goods produced by organizations outside of Congress. I present a theory of ideological and interest based think tank coalitions, and explore how Congress relies on legislative subsidies produced by these outside actors. Using a dataset of over 200,000 white-papers and 14,000 congressional committee reports, this project employees text reuse detection and latent network inference methods to infer a legislative subsidy transmission network from the outside organizations that produce these white papers to the committees that produce reports on bills as they are sent to the floor. I also use survey data and survey experiments to study the staffer decision-making involved in the subsidy uptake process, focusing on the role of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias in subsidy source selection among staffers.

Paper 2 (Job Market Paper) — Biasing Their Bosses: Staff Ideology and the Distortion of Information in Congress. [working paper]

As the size and scope of information processing institutions within Congress have declined in recent decades, the gap between Congress’s informational needs and its internal provisioning generates opportunities for interest groups, think tanks, and other outside organizations to offer policy relevant legislative subsidies. In this paper, I introduce a motivated reasoning theory of legislative information search in which staffers act as critical gatekeepers, selecting from a wide array potential outside sources of information subsidy. As prior research on political decision-making suggests, these decisions are likely to be subject to common cognitive biases and are shaped by factors such as staffers’ prior attitudes, ideological and partisan attachments, and institutional incentives. I test expectations derived from this framework using original survey data from the 2017 Congressional Capacity Survey and an experiment embedded in the 2019 Congressional Capacity Survey. I find strong evidence that 1) rather than simply selecting sources that are attitudinally aligned with their bosses, staffers’ own attitudes shape how they evaluate and use information, 2) staffers trust and use attitudinally aligned information sources at far higher rates than attitude incongruent sources, 3) moderate staffers are more likely to use internal non-partisan sources, and 4) there is considerable asymmetry in the negative effect of ideological extremism on trust and use of internal sources between conservatives and liberals.

Congressional Staffing and Legislative Capacity

Congressional Capacity Surveys

In the fall of 2017 I fielded the 2017 Congressional Capacity Survey as part of a larger joint New America and R Street project on Congressional Capacity. This survey sought to find out more about the backgrounds, career paths, policy views, and job experiences of congressional staffers. I have ongoing projects using data from this survey investigating partisan and ideological selection in information usage and trust, ideological diversity among members' staffs and how staffer issue knowledge effects information use patterns. (with Tim Lapira, Lee Drutman, Alex Hertel-Fernandez and Kevin Kosar)

In early Summer 2019, I fielded the 2019 Congressional Capacity Survey

Ideological Sabotage, Party Competition, and the Decline in Legislative Capacity in the US House (with Jesse Crosson, Tim Lapira, and Casey Burgat) [working paper]

Since the 1990s, members of the U.S. House have systematically shifted resources from legislative to non-legislative functions. We document this trend by tracking members’ expenditures on legislative staff and offer an explanation for declining investments, drawing upon insights from transaction-costs economic theory. Using an original dataset constructed from 236,000 quarterly payroll disbursements for 120,000 unique House staff between the 103rd and 113th Congresses, we show that members’ divestment in legislative capacity is symmetrical between and consistent within parties, contrary to expectations rooted in asymmetrical, ideological sabotage by conservative activists alone. Additionally, this divestment occurs within incumbent member-offices over time, accelerates when newly elected members of either party replace departing ones, and persists when the out-party takes over control of the chamber. We conclude that perpetual competition over institutional control and centralization of legislative functions motivates declining legislative capacity among members.

Interest Groups, Lobbying and Ideology

Polarized Pluralism Organizational Preferences and Biases in the American Pressure System (with Jesse Crosson and Geoff Lorenz) [working paper]

For decades, critics of pluralism have argued that the American interest group system exhibits a significantly biased distribution of policy preferences. We evaluate this argument by measuring groups’ revealed preferences directly, developing a set of ideal point estimates, IGscores, for over 2,600 interest groups and 950 members of Congress on a common scale. We generate the scores by jointly scaling a large dataset of interest groups’ positions on congressional bills with roll-call votes on those same bills. Analyses of the scores uncover significant heterogeneity in the interest group system, with little conservative skew and notable inter-party differences in preference correspondence between legislators and ideologically similar groups. Conservative bias and homogeneity reappear, however, when weighting IGscores by groups’ campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. These findings suggest that bias among interest groups depends on the extent to which activities like contributions and lobbying influence policymakers’ perceptions about the preferences of organized interests.

Estimating Bill Proposal and Status Quo Locations Using Position-Taking Data (with Jesse Crosson and Geoff Lorenz)

Generation of point estimates for bill proposals and status quo locations has long proven a difficult impediment to the study of policymaking. Indeed, while the legislators’ ideal points and a roll call vote’s cutpoint are well-identified using existing methods, identification of proposal and status quo locations is fragile and relies crucially upon the curvature of the legislators’ assumed utility functions. In this study, we develop an original dataset of 1,000 bill proposal and status quo point estimates from the 110th to the 114th Congress, by jointly scaling cosponsorship, roll call, and interest group position-taking data. Importantly, because interest groups in our data take public positions on bills before they ever receive a roll call vote, our data set includes point estimates for a large number of bills that never receive a roll call vote, permitting comparison between bills that do and do not advance through Congress. After introducing our methodology, we demonstrate how these data and the underlying methodology can contribute to study of a wide variety of topics in legislative politics, including partisan agenda-setting and members’ bill sponsorship strategies.

Semantic Smith Waterman

This project introduces a new method for detecting text reuse and paraphrasing in political texts, a critical measurement task in leveraging new text data to observe patterns of coordination, knowledge uptake, and policy transmission and diffusion. The method proposed is an extension of the Smith-Waterman local alignment algorithm with semantically aware mismatch penalties. This modification enables detection of instances of text reuse in which words are changed to semantically similar alternatives to fit new contexts or disguise the source of the text. Our implementation allows for arbitrary user defined semantic spaces, as well as arbitrary weighting of semantic dimensions. This enables users to tailor the semantic weighting to meet their domain specific needs. We apply this technique to find instances of text reuse from Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports in congressional Committee Reports. The discovery of these instances of reuse enable us to explore when and under what conditions Committees rely on analysis produced by CRS.

(with Benjamin Edwards)