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Researchers Dig Deep Into Legislative Process To Clarify Policy Goals

Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO
Assistant Professor of Political Science Adam Cayton and Postdoctoral Research Associate Brian D. Williams Wednesday July 19, 2017 at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida. The two from the UWF Department of Government will begin a study to

Most people would agree that there’s a deep divide between the right and left in the United States but two University of West Florida researchers want to find out if those ideological differences are reflected in the legislation lawmakers introduce.

This Fall, Dr. Adam Cayton and Dr. Brian Williams of the UWF Department of Government will begin a study to classify specific actions being proposed in legislation.

“We know a lot about the issue content of legislation, but less about the policy tools. In other words, the actions being undertaken with legislation,” Williams said. “For example, there’s data that exists that classifies bills based on (whether) this deals with taxation or (whether) this deals with immigration.”

However, existing data doesn't tell us whether, for example, if a bill increases or decreases taxation.

Cayton said much of the divide is created over differing ideas of what the role of government should be.

“The thing that jumped out at me in my research is that so much of what we argue about in politics and is debated in Congress has to do with the appropriate role of government and so much of conflict is over what the government actually does,” Cayton said. “But we don’t have a database measuring what the legislation considered in Congress actually does.”

That’s all about to change as these two researchers undertake the unique problem of trying to quantify what our government actually does.

“We’ve come up with 33 different kinds of actions that could be included,” Cayton said. “The idea is to show that these codes and this information is useful.”

The researchers hope that the database will help the public, particularly journalists and researchers who study Congress.

“Once the data set is completed, we’ll make it publicly available so anyone will be able to go and look through this information and find out what kind of actions are included in different bills and who wants to do what to solve different policy problems,” Cayton said.

Williams said the project is something that hasn’t been done before.

“I’ve done some studies in the areas of comparative legislative research, and I haven’t noticed anything that does something similar,” he said. “You find a lot of data on issue areas, but not much dealing with does (legislation) create a tax increase or a tax decrease, etc.”

The ways through which the government seeks to solve problems through legislation is a big factor in the country’s political divide, Cayton said.

“A lot of what we argue about is what the government will do and how the government will address different problems,” Cayton said. “That’s a lot of what political conflict is about in the United States.”

Cayton believes the project will provide an objective way to compare how these problems are addressed and also allow more understanding of policy that might not be particularly high-profile.

“We want to see if these ideological differences we see in high-profile policy areas that are in the news are the same in other areas,” he said. “We want to see if the rhetoric coming from the parties matches the content of the legislation they introduce or not, and either one of those results would be really interesting.”

With the help of student research assistants, the project will begin this fall and the pair hope to publish their results publicly to help everyone better understand legislation.

This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.