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 U.S., the federal government allocates over $700 billion annually in grants to state and local governments. This paper examines how political and institutional factors shape, and at times distort, the distribution of these federal grants. Unlike other types of spending, these funds are primarily distributed based on formulas written by Congress. I formalize a theory of congressional bargaining over allocation formulas and present empirical evidence consistent with the theory using an original dataset of Senate amendments. I find that legislators design grant programs to procure additional funding for their states but are constrained by both congressional rules and the structure of formulas. I formally show how formulas are shaped by the distribution of population, poverty, and other measures of need across states. Further, the formula enacted is influenced by the status quo policy and the makeup of key congressional committees. In particular, states receive more grant funding when represented by committee members. These results have implications for understanding the policymaking process as well as for how effectively federal programs distribute funding 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.