“Crises and Congressional Policymaking”

In my book dissertation, I take a multi-method approach to investigate congressional policymaking during moments of crisis in the modern era (1981-2020). In the first half of the dissertation, I use qualitative methods to argue that members of Congress take a different approach to policymaking during crises than they do outside of crisis, which I call “politics-as-usual.” My insights come from 48 interviews I conducted on Capitol Hill in the Spring of 2023 and are based on case studies of prominent crises, including the September 11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Covid pandemic, as well as negatively valenced focusing events, such as the BP oil spill and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. During these moments, members increasingly see taking action as a better way to achieve their goals (re-election, policy, and political power) than partisan messaging or obstruction, the usual modes of action during the modern era. Moreover, they usually find it easier to take action on policies that spend primarily spend federal dollars on ameliorating the crisis rather than policies aimed at preventing future crises through new regulatory or bureaucratic regimes. 

In the second half of the dissertation, I use quantitative analysis to investigate whether Congress is more responsive to a broad class of crises and crisis-like occurrences that I call “threatening events.” I first develop the concept of threatening events and then identify their presence on the national agenda using data from Sarah Binder. I find that threatening events are responsible for about 20 percent of items on the national agenda and that Congress is considerably more responsive to agenda items associated with threatening events than politics-as-usual agenda items. As expected, congressional responsiveness is most likely when lawmaking is focused on threat amelioration rather than threat prevention and when federal spending rather than regulation is the primary policy instrument. I also find that, unlike politics-as-usual responsiveness, threat responsiveness has not declined as polarization and partisanship have risen through the modern era.

In the final chapter, I use interviews and quantitative analysis to examine the processes of crisis response. The data show that threat-driven lawmaking is more consensual, more rapid, and more leadership-driven than politics-as-usual lawmaking. The interviews suggest this is because members are more willing to centralize power in leaders when they believe threat response is in their best interests and that leaders are happy to oblige given their incentives. This presents a more optimistic view of leadership centralization in Congress than has been suggested in other work. Rather than undercutting representation, bypassing regular order is facilitating rank-and-file members’ ability to act on their constituents’ demands. 

Papers under review

“Congress on the Beat: How the Structure of News Shapes Coverage of Congressional Action” (with Jim Curry and Frances Lee)

Abstract: Scholars have long criticized media coverage of Congress for its focus on conflict over policy substance. To uncover the drivers of this focus, we examine news coverage of the congressional response to Covid. We select the Covid response as an “extreme case” of Congress coalescing quickly to address a major national crisis in an almost entirely bipartisan way. Our study confirms prior research documenting a media preference for conflict narratives, even in this case. But we also find that the practice of beat reporting on Congress is itself a key factor underlying the dominance of news about conflict. A steady volume of reporting on an institution that acts quickly when there is agreement but slowly when there is disagreement gives rise to a large-scale imbalance favoring stories about conflict. Because conflict necessarily takes up more of Congress’s time, it dominates beat reporting on the institution. We find this imbalance is more pronounced in national newspapers, which produce a relatively constant volume of reporting by journalists assigned to the “Congress beat,” than in broadcast television news, which reports on Congress episodically and often only in response to legislative enactments. Our findings shed new light on public and scholarly perceptions of the institution’s performance.

“Supermajority Rules and Bipartisan Policymaking: Evidence from the American States”

Abstract: Political scientists and practitioners often argue that minority legislative parties depend on supermajority rules for policymaking influence. Using a new dataset of state legislative roll call votes on revenue increases – a policy area where states vary in whether they require majority or supermajority votes – I assess whether there is greater bipartisanship when supermajority rules give the minority party a veto. I find some evidence that supermajority vetoes and minority party support are significantly related. However, the effects are relatively small and do not explain much of the variation in the data. Moreover, I find that bipartisan policymaking is common under both majority and supermajority rules, suggesting that the influence of rules on bipartisanship is marginal. To further explore this finding, I conducted interviews with state-level policymakers. These interviews revealed that majority and minority party members pursue bipartisanship for many reasons unrelated to the voting threshold, such as avoiding blame and representing their constituents. On balance, my findings suggest that while supermajority rules can foster bipartisanship, they are just one of many reasons why minority party members participate in policymaking and are probably not the most important.


Works in progress

“Filibustering in the American States” (with Jim Curry)

“Partisan Agendas and Media Evaluations of Congressional Achievements” (with Jim Curry and Frances Lee)


Conference papers

“Do Voters Hold State Legislators Accountable for Tax Hikes?” (with Lewis Krashinsky and Thomas Tichelbaecker)

 “Style or Substance? Populism and Representation in the Modern Congress” (with H. Benjamin Ashton)


Other publications

Wave Elections (1918-2016) (Ballotpedia report co-authored with Jacob Smith)