Faculty Spotlight: Improving the Way We Make Laws, With Science

June 23, 2021 By Lindsay Stuart Hill, lsh3pa@virginia.edu Lindsay Stuart Hill, lsh3pa@virginia.edu

Long before Craig Volden began his career as a policy researcher, he dreamed of becoming a rocket scientist. 

Growing up in the 1970s, Volden found himself swept up in widespread excitement about space exploration: Satellites were sending photographs of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn back to Earth for the first time. Volden decided to enroll as an aeronautical engineering student at the California Institute of Technology and completed an internship with NASA, designing micro-spacecraft.

Once he stepped into his first political science class, however, Volden’s plans began to change. In high school, he had loved discussing policy challenges in debate competitions, but politics always felt frustratingly unscientific to him. Now he was encountering equations that quantified things like the political stances of members of Congress. 

“It was enlightening because I realized that we could apply a scientific approach to issues of government,” Volden said. “We could develop hypotheses, gather data, test those hypotheses and so on. That was revelatory to me.”

After transferring to Stanford University and eventually completing his Ph.D. in political economics, Volden taught at a range of institutions, including The Ohio State University, where he met fellow political scientist Alan Wiseman. The two discussed the models Volden had encountered in his early political science classes at Caltech – and agreed that something was missing.

“Those early equations were mapping members of Congress into how left or right or liberal or conservative they were – and that was a powerful idea. But it wasn’t the whole story,” Volden said.

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Regardless of their political leanings, some members of Congress just seemed better at attracting support for the bills they proposed. “That wasn’t well-captured in either those models or the data that existed,” he said.

To fill the gap, Volden worked with Wiseman, who now teaches at Vanderbilt University, to develop a legislative effectiveness scoring system: the first metric to rate lawmakers not on their political stances, but on how successfully they’ve championed bills in the House or Senate. Many political scientists like to study specific policies – state-sponsored health care or gun control measures, for example. But Volden prefers to delve into what makes democracy broadly succeed or fail, and the scoring system reflects that passion.

“Are the political parties engaging in debate in a way that’s helpful? Are they able to overcome gridlock and bring about policy changes? For me, it’s less about the specific policies and more about the processes that lead to good governance,” he said.

Volden and Wiseman published their original legislative effectiveness research, which focused on the House of Representatives, in a book released by Cambridge University Press in 2014. After extending their scoring system to the Senate, they established the Center for Effective Lawmaking, which has brought together a team of top policy experts from around the country to study what makes certain legislators more successful. 

“The Center for Effective Lawmaking exemplifies the promise of a public research university,” said Jay Shimshack, Batten’s associate dean for academic affairs. “The center is generating new knowledge, translating and disseminating results to the public, and making a difference in the real world.”

Some of the center’s findings are to be expected – experienced lawmakers tend to score higher, for example. But other discoveries, such as the heightened effectiveness of minority-party women, are more surprising. This year, Volden and Wiseman further extended the scope of their research when they scored members of state legislatures. Their paper presenting these results was recently named the best paper of 2020 on state politics and policy by the American Political Science Association.

While the new ratings shed light on the effectiveness of lawmakers in individual states, they have important implications at the national level as well. Volden and Wiseman found that in cases where the legislatures were more evenly divided along party lines, lawmakers (especially in the minority party) frequently struggled to advance bills into law – a situation that reflects our current Congress. 

Are the political parties engaging in debate in a way that’s helpful? Are they able to overcome gridlock and bring about policy changes? For me, it’s less about the specific policies and more about the processes that lead to good governance. – Craig Volden, UVA professor of public policy and politics and director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking

“In really closely divided legislatures, the majority party doesn’t want the minority party to succeed at all and tends to dismiss their ideas,” Volden said. Both parties become preoccupied with gaining the upper hand, turning their focus away from governing and toward concerns about elections. “That’s really unhealthy,” he added.

The Center for Effective Lawmaking has recently put a heavier emphasis on engagement: hosting high-profile events, advertising the research it leads and establishing the Building a Better Congress Project, which seeks to identify the traits of effective lawmakers and opportunities for congressional reforms. The center also produces materials that explain how to legislate more effectively. 

Although Volden’s work with Wiseman on the scores has garnered much scholarly attention, he especially enjoys moments when non-academics – lawmakers and the general public – take interest. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a recent example. After Volden and Wiseman’s metric identified her as the most effective Democratic senator in the 115th Congress, her presidential campaign advertised her high score on T-shirts during the Iowa caucuses. 

The center also receives many calls from members of Congress asking how they can improve their scores. “Bridging the academic and policy worlds, connecting the work of scholars to the day-to-day experiences of practitioners – that has felt deeply rewarding,” Volden said. 

In many ways, political gridlock on the Hill has become the norm, and party differences can begin to feel insurmountable. But Volden’s research approaches the problem from a new angle. Shimshack believes his conviction that good leadership can be measured and quantified sets Volden’s work apart.

“Craig and his colleagues are showing that we can use data to promote accountability in lawmaking,” he said. “They are conducting frontier research that is changing the national conversation.”

“What we’re doing is not rocket science,” Volden added, “but to us, it feels even more fulfilling.”