“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, fast-paced, and leadership-driven than politics-as-usual lawmaking. In other words, it looks more like executive-driven policymaking. 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. 

Published journal articles

On the Congress Beat: How the Structure of News Shapes Coverage of Congressional Action (with Jim Curry and Frances Lee) (published at Political Science Quarterly)

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.

Partisan Governance and Minority Party Vetoes: Evidence from State Legislatures (published at Legislative Studies Quarterly

Abstract: It is often argued that bipartisan lawmaking depends on minority legislative parties controlling institutional veto points through divided government and/or supermajority pivots. Using a new dataset of state legislative roll call votes on tax increases – an issue where states vary in whether they require majority or supermajority votes – I assess (1) whether minority control of veto points is necessary for bipartisan policymaking and (2) whether there are greater levels of partisan governance when the majority controls all veto points. I find that partisan governance is more likely when the majority controls all vetoes. However, bipartisan policymaking is still the most common outcome even when institutional conditions are seemingly ideal for partisan governance. Interviews with state policymakers uncover various non-institutional reasons for bipartisanship regardless of veto control. My findings suggest that while institutional rules can compel bipartisanship, they are just one of many reasons why the minority party participates in lawmaking.

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)

”The Causes and Consequences of Conservative Support for Climate Change Legislation in Congress” (with Jim Curry and Samuel Simon)

Dormant 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)