Measuring the Influence of Political Actors on the Federal Budget

with Ben Hammond. 2020, American Political Science Review.

Abstract. When estimating the political determinants of the federal budget, scholars face a choice between using measures of funding and measures of spending as their outcome of interest. We examine the consequences of this choice. In particular, we argue that spending outcomes may serve as a poor test of the research questions scholars seek to answer, since spending data conflate competing budgetary influences, are downstream measures of the appropriations that originated them, and induce measurement error. To test our claim, we compare the spending data used in a recent study (Berry and Fowler 2016: American Journal of Political Science 60 (3): 692–708) with an original data set of military construction appropriations. While an analysis of the spending data produces a null result, the same analysis using the appropriations data provides strong evidence that legislators use their committee positions to distribute pork. Our findings have broad implications for studies that use measures of spending in the congressional and presidency literatures.

(Replication materials available here.)

Working Papers

Congressional Bargaining and the Distribution of Grants

Abstract. In the United States, the majority of federal assistance comes in the form of grants-in-aid, yet relatively little is known about how Congress designs these programs. I argue that congressional rules and political considerations shape, and at times distort, federal grant programs. I develop a theory of congressional bargaining over grants and test the theory empirically using an original dataset of Senate amendments. I find that legislators design programs to procure additional funding for their states, and states represented by members of key congressional committees disproportionately benefit. Further, I show how the coalitions formed are shaped by the status quo policy and the distribution of population, poverty, and other measures of need across states. Together, these results illustrate how institutional features, such as the committee system and majority rule, influence the policymaking process and how effectively the federal government distributes assistance to areas with the greatest need.

The Politicization of Congressional Capacity

with Nathan Gibson and Ben Hammond

Abstract. Congress has experienced an increase in dysfunction, gridlock and polarization over the past several decades. While no doubt there are numerous causes behind these maladies, we hypothesize that the politicization of congressional capacity plays an important role. By this, we mean that the funding and staffing of congressional committees has become increasingly political, instead of being based primarily upon expertise or need. This paper explores changes in committee capacity in two ways. We first examine the broader context of committee resource allocation through several decades of House and Senate disbursement reports, exploring how political considerations may influence the allocation of budget and personnel resources within Congress. Then, we propose a novel data set that uses House and Senate telephone directories to track the employment and movement within Congress of all House and Senate staffers from 1977 to 2018. We present initial results from a subset of these data and note evidence of emerging trends.