Research In Progress

You Better Find Something To Do: Lawmaking and Agenda Setting in a Centralized Congress (Dissertation)

My dissertation project investigates recent shifts in congressional policymaking at the committee level from lawmaking to oversight. The dissertation develops a theory of committee policymaking based around information processing and competition for agenda space in order to explain this shift. The project's theoretical contribution is supported with quantitative analysis using a unique dataset of committee activity from 1981 to 2014.

I find that the shift towards non-legislative policymaking results from centralized agenda setting process in which party leaders exert more influence over committee activity and from a greater demand for oversight of agency activity through the expansion of the executive branch and congressional reliance on stopgap funding measures. I am currently developing the dissertation into a book project using additional data on committee legislating and a discussion of how a recent focus on budgeting and appropriations has crowded out other issues on Congress's legislative agenda.

Related research in progress: "Bidding for Attention: Effort, Efficiency, and Oversight in Legislative Committees" (with Scott Moser); "It's In Our Hands: Multiple Referral With a Primary Committee" (with Scott Moser)


Congressional Dysfunction and Capacity (with Sean M. Theriault and Bryan Jones)
"Congressional Dysfunction and the Decline of Problem Solving"
"The Issue Dynamics of Congressional Dysfunction"

Recent years have seen breakdowns in Congress's ability solve public problems, even with measures that previously were uncontroversial. The 2013 government shutdown is the highest-profile example of this phenomenon, but we see it over and over on matters both large and small. Party polarization is an obvious culprit, but there's nothing about what polarization means – parties that are internally homogenous ideologically but unlike one another, presenting distinct policy platforms to voters – that should necessarily lead to the kind of brinkmanship lawmaking that characterizes current congressional operations. Intensified partisan warfare has influenced members' floor behavior, but members in such an environment still should be able to obtain and use good information to pursue their partisan ends; that they are failing to do so suggests that something else is happening.

Over the past several years I have been engaged with a large-scale research project with Sean Theriault and Bryan Jones to more precisely and define congressional dysfunction from an information processing perspective. This project entails collecting and coding data from over 20,000 congressional committee hearings to evaluate whether the information committees take in and transmit to the rest of the chamber has changed since the 1970s. Overall we find that committees are holding dramatically fewer hearings on policy solutions (broadly defined to include non-legislative proposals) today. Hearings also have become more one-sided and less balanced and analytical over time.

In addition to scholarly manuscripts, we have written about our research for Vox.com:
The Senate's disastrous process for crafting the AHCA fits a historic pattern (June 21, 2017)

Cybersecurity Policy in the United States

"One Bite at a Time: Cybersecurity Policy in the U.S. Congress."

I recently have begun a research agenda centered on cybersecurity as a policy issue. One of the fascinating things about cybersecurity is that it spans multiple policy areas, including defense and espionage, consumer fraud and white collar crime, infrastructure protection, and ideas about privacy, and therefore presents challenges for defining policy problems and devising solutions. How do all of the different policy communities come together (or not) to make cybersecurity policy? The first manuscript in this agenda examines which policy areas receive attention when congressional committees hold hearings on cybersecurity. Data from 1981 to the present reveal that attention to cybersecurity has increasingly focused on defense and homeland security, that cybersecurity hearings are increasingly being used to monitor existing programs rather than investigate new problems or develop solutions, and that committees are relying more and more on agency bureaucrats to help them navigate a complex, changing issue.

"Federal Agencies, Information Sharing, and Cybersecurity Policy"

Congress has tried to develop a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity in recent years with little success. Instead, federal agencies are being asked to foster information sharing among themselves and between agencies and the private sector about cyber vulnerabilities, threats and strategies. This paper discusses information sharing within the context of bureaucratic policymaking, including delegation, oversight, and signaling between branches of government. What are Congress's goals in telling agencies to share information? How do Congress and the president monitor such activity? How is success or failure measured? What would penalties be for not sharing information? Information sharing as a mode of bureaucratic policymaking does not fit neatly within existing theories, which raises questions about both their applicability to cybersecurity policy and how Congress and the president can stay informed and active on cybersecurity.



E-mail: jlewallen@ut.edu                                                                            Google Scholar profile
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