Political Science PhD candidate focusing on American institutions

Research in progress

A selection of ongoing research projects

My research agenda takes on this question of congressional information processing, with a focus on the role of organized interests and ideology in congressional policy-making. While outside sources essentially provide subsidies for aligned legislators in the form of useful information, this relationship is two-sided; both the organization offering the subsidy and the legislator or her staff accepting it (or not) must participate in the transaction.  As a result, my research attends to the organized interests that serve as sources of information, the staffers in Congress that act as information processors, and the members and institutional contexts that create the incentives shaping their interactions.


My dissertation is an empirical study of legislative subsidy, comprised of three papers in which I explore 1) how staffers’ ideology impacts their evaluation of sources of subsidy, 2) ideological coordination among subsidy providers, and 3) actual patterns of subsidy by applying text-as-data and network analysis to a large original corpus of text..

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

The central representational duties of Congress require acquiring and assessing widely dispersed information. In this paper, I present a theory of congressional information processing in which staffers act as information gate-keepers whose own ideological preferences shape the picture of the world they present to their bosses. I present the first systematic empirical test of three competing perspectives on congressional staffer behavior: staffers as faithful agents, staffers as independent agents and staffers as motivated reasoners. I adjudicate between these perspectives 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) this relationship is more pronounced among more ideologically extreme staffers, 4) there is considerable asymmetry in the relationship between ideological extremism and evaluations of internal sources for conservatives and liberals, 5) at least some of these effects appear to be driven by cognitive biases rather than strategic action intended to advance staffer's positions. Together, these results show substantial support for the proposition that staffers act as largely independent agents, exercising considerable leeway to present a biased selection of information to their bosses.

Ideological Coalitions in Washington Think Tanks: A temporal analysis of board interlock among 270 policy research organizations

This paper tests whether think tanks organize into ideological communities, which, despite the recent theoretical prominence of extended party networks, has not yet been tested. I use IRS 990 data from over 270 Washington D.C.-based policy research institutes and analysis organizations from 2008-2015, to construct the largest board interlock network of policy organizations to date. Taking interlock as a proxy measure for a strong coordination tie between two organizations, I use this network to evaluate several different motivations that think tanks may have for coordinating with each other, including ideological signaling, accruing status, and accessing funding. While this work is ongoing, preliminary analysis suggests a substantial degree of homophily in the policy-planning interlock network, with groups more likely to be connected to their allies, and to other organizations in the same issue areas. In addition to evaluating think tank coordination, this study characterizes an important set of sources of subsidy that staffers draw from as they inform their bosses.

Traces of Subsidy:

Despite the prominence of the legislative subsidy theory, there is very little direct empirical evidence of this sort of subsidy occurring. The evidence that exists tends to be either circumstantial, anecdotal, or focused on a narrow set of activity (e.g., model legislation). In this paper I find direct evidence of subsidy by using a large, original corpus that I have compiled from more than 100,000 white papers produced by think tanks and research organizations, over 40,000 CRS reports, and 14,000 committee reports from Congress. I use natural language processing tools to detect instances where language from research or policy papers produced by think tanks or the CRS was reused in congressional committee reports. To find instances of language reuse, I have a modified reuse detection algorithm to be more flexible in catching instances of paraphrasing or text adaptation. I then use the set of observed language reuse to estimate a latent diffusion network that allows me to test whether committees rely on sources that are aligned with their chairs and ranking members. These hypotheses are tested using exponential random graph models on the inferred latent diffusion network. I make use of involuntary committee departures to gain causal leverage on this question, testing the changes in the composition of the subsidies that a committee makes use of as a result of the changes in committee leadership.

Congressional Staffing and Legislative Capacity

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

  • Invited to Revise and Resubmit to Legislative Studies Quarterly.

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.

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.  (with Timothy LaPira, Lee Drutman, Alex Hertel-Fernandez and Kevin Kosar)

In early Summer 2019, I fielded the 2019 Congressional Capacity Survey (with Timothy LaPira) which extends and expands on the 2017 Congressional Capacity Survey. The 2019 CCS surveyed Washington, DC-based congressional staffers to measure their professional backgrounds, career paths, policy views, technical knowledge, substantive expertise, and job experiences. The survey focuses is on the human beings who do the daily work of Congress – staff who work for members of Congress – and on the procedures and organizational structures that allow them to do their work in the most effective and democratically responsive ways.

I have ongoing projects using data from these surveys investigating partisan and ideological selection in information usage and trust, ideological diversity among members' staffs, cue-taking and legislative effectiveness, and how staffer issue knowledge effects information use patterns.

Moneyed Interests, Information, and Action in Congress: A Survey Experiment (with Tim LaPira, Lee Drutman, Alex Hertel-Fernandez and Kevin Kosar) [working paper]

A growing body of research suggests that the legislative agenda in Congress favors the preferences and interests of wealthy Americans and well-organized corporations. But how do these groups influence legislative action? In this paper, we focus on the role of legislative staffers, developing a theory of information processing and judgment in which staffers weigh the costs of granting access to different constituents or interest groups against signaled informational and electoral benefits that those constituents or groups may offer. We then test this theory on an original, large-scale survey of more than 400 Washington, DC-based congressional staffers who participated in the 2017 Congressional Capacity Survey. Using a survey experiment vignette about a policy ask by an outside interest to staff, we manipulate the identity of the individual or interest making the request, the substantive nature of the request, and the information provided by the petitioner to the staffer. We then explore the effort that staffers would expend on the hypothetical request, whether (and how) they would use the information provided by the outside interest, and how they would update their beliefs about public opinion in their constituency on the basis of the information. Together, our results shed light on debates over the nature of substantive representation of constituent preferences, lobbying influence, and legislative behavior in Congress in an era of rising political polarization and inequality.

Interest Groups, Lobbying and Ideology

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

  • Invited to Revise and Resubmit to American Political Science Review.

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.

Gaining Access Without Buying It: Campaign Contributions, Allies, and Lobbying on Capitol Hill (with Richard Hall and Robert Van Houweling) [working paper]

Critics of Congress often allege that members sell access to their office for campaign contributions, staining the practice of representation and shaping policy in ways that are difficult to detect. We hypothesize that contributions affect access via a different mechanism. They serve as costly signals of group-legislator policy agreement on which lobbyist credibility depends.  For these signals to be informative, what matters is their cost to the sender, not their value to the receiver.  The relationship between money and access should thus decrease with the size of the group’s PAC, not the size of the member’s campaign. We analyse observational data with over  7,000 observations on lobbyist-legislator contacts, showing robust relationships consistent with our claim, and one ancillary test suggests that the relationships are causal.

Methodological Research

Text reuse and Paraphrase Detection with Semantical Smith-Waterman Local Alignment [working paper]

Coordination among political elites is an issue of substantive interest across political science. This paper details 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. 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 new contexts or disguise the source of the text. This method is applied to a corpus of tweets sent by Members of Congress and their electoral challengers during the 2016 election cycle.

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

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 cut-point 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.

Using Model Legislation to Estimate Ideology Scores for State Legislators (with Charles Shipan) [working paper]

Legislator ideal points can be estimated by applying dimensionality reduction techniques to the high dimensional space defined by legislators’ roll call votes to find the latent ideological dimension that best explains voting behavior. Critically, the ideal points of these legislators must be estimated in a common latent space so that their scores are comparable. Practically, this means that legislators must have expressed their preferences (voted) on comparable or identical items (bills). We leverage a new set of common observations across states to address this need. We use a dataset of 153,582 unique bills across 321 state legislative sessions to identify new bridging observations and estimate ideal points for state legislators in three states to demonstrate this pooling approach. We use bill-to-bill similarity scores calculated with the Smith-Waterman local-alignment algorithm to identify a set of ideal bridge observations: bills introduced in multiple state houses in nearly identical form. In practice these bridge bills are often model legislation drawn from a variety of sources including ALEC, ALICE and the Council of State Governments. The directly comparable bills we use provide an opportunity to observe state legislators expressing their preferences in a truly comparable form. This enables us to calculate all state legislators’ ideal points within one common space, by pooling the voting matrices of multiple states into one large matrix and linking them with these bridge bills.