John D. Wilkerson

Curriculum Vitae


My research focuses primarily on legislative policymaking. More specifically, I study how legislatures manage issues and how legislative processes differ depending on the type of issue at stake.

I am a principal investigator of several long term projects: The Congressional Bills Project, the Policy Agendas Project, and the Comparative Agendas Project. Each of these projects develops (and makes available to the research community) reliable indicators of issue attention across multiple policymaking venues over long periods of time.

I also have a longstanding interest in the benefits of information technology developments for research and instruction. Below I describe  each of these interests and how they intersect.

Congressional Bills Project

The Congressional Bills Project, in collaboration with Professor Scott Adler (University of Colorado) offers information about the substance, sponsor and progress of every congressional bill introduced since 1947 (~400,000). The CBP is the only digital resource for congressional bills introduced between 1947 and 1972.

Scott and I re-consider existing models of congressional policymaking by examining them from an issue perspective. One of our recent articles investigates congressional committee reforms by tracing how jurisdictional changes affect where bills addressing particular topics are referred. This study is unique because previous studies of reform have not actually investigated their impact on bill referrals. Our results also contradict those earlier studies. We find that reforms do matter and that their main effect is to promote the objectives described by reformers.

This article is one of a series that advance a theory of congressional policymaking that highlights the governing responsibilities of committees. Along these lines we are conducting one of the first systematic studies of how non-discretionary policy responsibilities, such as legislative reauthorizations, shape legislative agendas.

Topic classifying hundreds of thousands of records was time consuming and maintaining such databases is costly. For several years, I have been collaborating with information scientists Steve Purpura and Dustin Hillard to develop and validate a supervised learning automated approach to topic classifying political text. I have published an article about this system (with Dustin and Steve) and recently co-edited a special volume on Text Annotation for Political Science with Professor Claire Cardie, Director of the Information Science Program at Cornell University.

The Bills Project is used as a corpus by computer and information scientists because  high quality, very large, databases of human classified events are hard to come by. We are currently developing tools for grabbing data from digital sources (e.g. the internet), automatically classifying them for topic, and inputting them into our databases while providing signals of confidence in those classifications. This system will be very useful for living database applications such as the CBP.

Policy Agendas Project

For the past decade or so I have also collaborated with Bryan D. Jones and Frank Baumgartner on the Policy Agendas Project, and more recently (as members of a multinational research team), the Comparative Agendas Project.

The topic classification of the Policy Agendas project is designed for research. It assigns a single topic to each event. The 19 major topics and 224 subtopics are comprehensive. As a result, it is the only reliable topic system  for comparing relative attention to issues over time and across decision-making venues.

Bryan, Heather Larsen and I recently proposed an approach to the study  of representation that considers not only the policy distance between policymakers' preferences and the preferences of those they represent, but also the correspondence between the issues policymakers address and those constituents consider most important. Our empirical analysis studied more than 750,000 events across 45 years (Using CBP and PAP data), and linked variations in issue representation to variations in institutional friction and the visibility of the decision-making venue.

Comparative Agendas Project

The Comparative Agendas Project currently includes research teams in 10 countries in North American and Europe. Each country team is topic classifying political events in order to study issue attention within their own nations. However, a central goal of the project is to allow for reliable systematic comparisons of issue attention across nations (and over time).

One very interesting aspect of this project willl be to leverage what we have learned about automated topic classification to assist the development of classification projects in other languages.

A number of studies have already been published as part of this project. In one of the first, Christopher Green-Pederson (University of Arhus) and I compared legislative attention to health care in the U.S. Congress and the Danish Folktinget over a 40 year time period.

In 2007-08, I received an external investigator grant from the Spanish Ministry of Education to develop a Spanish Agendas Project with Professor Laura Chaques and colleagues at the University of Barcelona. To date, we have published one paper comparing Presidential speeches in the U.S. and Spain.


Undergraduate: U.S. Congress, State Politics and Policy, Undergraduate Research Seminar

Graduate: American Government, Game Theory for Political Scientists, Theories of Agenda Setting.


Since 2001, I have been developing LegSim, a virtual legislature used as a teaching tool across a wide range of classes, from high school AP Government classes to graduate level public policy courses. In 2002, LegSim received the Best Academic Website Award of the American Political Science Association Information and Technology Section.

LegSim has been used by about 6,000 students in more than 100 classes to date. LegSim is a platform, which means that it can be used to mimic any legislative body (currently U.S. House; U.S. Senate; European Parliament).

What makes LegSim unique is that it is designed to be the centerpiece of a semester-long course. In my course, 100 percent of a student's grade is based on LegSim related activities. Toward this end we have invested much effort into the curriculum that goes along with the simulation. LegSim remains a  rewarding work in progress. Sean Kellogg is the lead developer and has been with the project for all but the first year.

I’m also currently involved in two applied research projects assessing the educational benefits of project based learning environments such as LegSim. In the first, we have developed a controlled experiment to test the efficacy of year long Advanced Placement Government curriculum in collaboration with the Bellevue school district, the LIFE center at the UW and the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF).

The second project applies natural language processing techniques from computer science to develop methods for automatically assess argumentation and critical thinking skills acquisition in on-line learning environments (with Carolyn Penstein Rose of Carnegie Mellon University).


Service refers to activities on behalf of the university and community in addition to teaching and research. Faculty serve on hiring, evaluation and admissions committees. We serve as liaisons to other programs and organizations on campus, and we are involved in off-campus organizations as well.

I am the Director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy. Bryan Jones was the Director for many years but has since moved to the University of Texas. Our collaboration continues, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to shape CAPPP's future direction (but less pleased to lose a great colleague). Off campus, I have served as Secretary/Treasurer of the Legislative Studies Association, and am currently on the senior editorial board of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics

I also serve on the board of the Thomas C. Wales Foundation. One goal of this organization is to promote civic involvement by drawing attention to truly remarkable efforts by ordinary people, and by facilitating enriching non-profit internship opportunities.

Associate Professor
Director, Center for American Politics and Public Policy

Department of Political Science
Box 353530
Seattle WA 98195
Phone: 206-543-2780