Adam Zelizer is an Assistant Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy focusing on legislative politics. His recent work, which relies on causal inference, examines exactly how legislators go about making decisions and their approach to learning about issues and  policy options.

Assistant Professor Adam Zelizer

One of his goals is to better understand the effects of individual decision-making processes on policy outcomes. Zelizer is interested in which legislative information gathering approaches work best, as they could lead to more informed and effective legislators. He also seeks to learn which approaches fail to deliver.

We interviewed Zelizer about his research and its implications for American politics. The following is an edited conversation with Zelizer.

What are your main research interests in and what spurred your interest in that area?

I discovered my research interests by working in a state legislature while doing my PhD. I noticed that the kind of day-to-day problems and obstacles that legislators and other stakeholders faced were often not the issues that attracted national attention or constituted academic scholarship. The day-to-day process of the legislature is learning.  Legislators are confronted with thorny policy problems that do not have obvious solutions and they try to figure out effective public policy responses. To do so, they must find a way to learn about policy and how they do so is the basis for my research.

I began to talk to legislators about what they knew about certain public policy issues, and about other technical information they might need in order to make decisions. I then started conducting experiments where I provided them with expert information collected from the fiscal review office or other legislators. This information was provided to the legislators to see how learning influenced their actions. What I learned from these experiments is that a lack of information makes it more difficult for legislators to do their jobs. It demonstrated that they need access to expertise to take an informed position for or against a bill.

This conclusion ties into much broader, high-scale trends in American legislatures that relates to the dismantling of institutions, the defunding of congressional and state legislative staff and support services, decreasing staff for state legislators, and decreasing session lengths in many states and in Congress. In essence, legislators spending less time in the legislature means less time for them to learn policy, which results in more difficulty making policy. My research began by thinking about to what extent the problems that we, the public, perceive in contemporary legislatures might actually be rooted in legislators’ limited information or expertise – the need to get quality information and, ultimately, learn about the issues being put before them..

How do legislators respond to policy information?

We are still in the early days of finding out how it works today. Policy information gives legislators confidence to take a position and be transparent with their constituents. Historically, legislators would not cast a vote if they didn’t know enough about the bill in consideration.  This was preferable to  potentially casting the wrong vote due to a lack of information.

You're telling a story that is much less a story of partisanship than of individual members, it seems?

Limited information is related to high levels of partisanship, but in many ways is distinct from it. There is a great book by Jim Curry from the University of Utah that argues that one potential cause of increasing partisanship is information. It shows that when legislators have less information, they simply follow party leaders on a vote. Party leaders who want to be followed will sometimes strategically pull back information that rank-and-file members can have so that they have stronger party discipline.

The hollowing out of Congress and many state legislatures’ capacities also is related to increasing partisanship. Legislators who were policy experts in a given field used to have power and influence in that field just as a result of their expertise. This power was reinforced by formal rules about committee chairmanships, committee process, and bills needing to proceed through so-called “regular order.” Because these rules and norms have weakened in many legislatures over the past few decades, legislators have fewer incentives today to become policy experts. The question, then, is if we have less expertise making its way into our policies.

Is this a trend that you're seeing across the country and in Congress?

Over the last 20 years, there have been a number of state legislatures, particularly in the South, that have started to shorten their sessions. This was consistent with a shift from Democratic to Republican control, as well as principles of small government conservatism. Legislatures began meeting less often and pulling back on funding for staff and support.  These trends detract from legislators being fully informed about issues.

The term limits movement at the state level is also having an effect. Adopting term limits for legislators not only diminishes legislative expertise, but it also reduces incentives to become an expert.  It kicks legislators out just as they begin to acquire expertise, which is one of the many reasons that many political scientists oppose term limits for state legislators.

Is there something special about legislatures, to your mind?

I believe that legislatures are the defining institution of representative democracy. If you want to get in touch with our government, you can do that through your legislator. If you send an email to your member of Congress, your senator, or your state representative, they will get back to you, or someone from their office will get back to you.  They are responsive to the needs of their constituents. On the contrary, it is very unlikely that you would receive a response if you were to contact the president or your governor.  To the extent that legislatures are being diminished, we are losing something essential for our democracy. Certain policy changes are more likely to occur by pressuring legislators than executives, as there are obvious obstacles for executive responsiveness and accountability.

Let's talk about state and local politics. Are they becoming more partisan as well?

Yes.  State politics have  become intensely partisan in ways that they didn’t used to be. Previously, the toxicity of our national politics had not permeated the state level. That’s changed. Over the last ten years, there has been an increase in conflict, national attention, money, and interest group activity in state politics that has made it far more partisan.

In my home state of Tennessee, for example, politics used to be relatively friendly. There were disagreements about politics, for sure, but there was a norm of comity and lack of ad hominem political conflict. This decorum has seemed to disappear recently,  as evidenced by Tennessee making national news for protests led by state representatives in the legislative chamber, who were later expelled from the chamber and from office by the opposing party.  These representatives were then reappointed to their office by their local governments. This toxicity has started to trickle down to a local level as well.

And school boards?

The local institution where it has been the most visible in the last few years is the school boards. I interviewed several school board members throughout Cook County (Illinois) about what it is like to serve on a school board, which is an unpaid, nonpartisan, but elected position. These members stated that their jobs changed as a result of COVID and the resulting school closures for an extended period of time. Cook County school boards are traditionally composed of parents who want to help manage the local school district and make sure everyone was doing the best they could for the students. After COVID, however, there was an emergence of organized groups with explicit ideological goals. They ran slates of candidates striving to shift the ideology of the school board and the district.

So, one disconcerting trend in legislative politics, is that extreme partisanship is starting to appear more and more in state capitols and even in local legislative institutions.  It’s not just a dynamic that exists in national politics any longer.

What classes are you teaching this quarter and next?

This quarter I'm teaching Political Economy 2, which is a course in empirical research methods for our PhD students in our new political economy program. Students learn to conduct rigorous causally-oriented empirical research. Next quarter, I'm teaching Analytical Politics 2 in the evening program and a new course on legislative politics for Harris students.

What is something the Harris community might find surprising about you?

I love to collect old books. My office is full of old books on legislatures, on political science, some old books about the history of the University of Chicago, several books from the foundational days of the Political Science Department when it was led by Charles Merriam and had Harold Gosnell on staff. I also love old mystery books, which are not in my office, but I collect mystery novels from the early 20th century.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your work?

One thing I've really tried to do in my research is go into the field and study how legislatures work using methods that are relatively new and difficult to implement in legislatures. The main methodology is experimentation.

The history of experiments and political science really traces back to the University of Chicago, where Harold Gosnell fielded some of the first social science experiments. He ran Get Out the Vote experiments in 1925 in the city of Chicago, trying to see why voters register to vote and what kind of appeals could convince them to register and to turn out to vote.

Those methods have become commonplace in certain fields of political science like elections, but for obvious reasons, it's hard to experiment with political elites. There aren't many legislators, they’re busy, and access is often controlled. A lot of my work has been finding ways to access legislators and conduct experiments so that we can learn, using the best research methods available, why they make the decisions that they do. Using these methods, we're able to go into the legislature, collect new data, provide new information, and learn about legislative decision making in ways that we couldn't through measures that the legislature itself collected and published for the public.

The application for our 2024 admissions cycle is open. To begin your graduate school journey with Harris, start your application here. If you know a great future Harris student, please refer them here.