November 4, 2016
While many of us shy away from what can seem the seedy world of political lobbying – especially in a heated presidential election year – Geoff has decided to write a dissertation about it.
He studies what makes lobbying effective in the U.S. Congress, approaching from many angles the ways in which interest groups attempt to influence lawmaking. His dissertation examines how lobbying impacts what bills Congress addresses (and what bills Congress ignores), particularly at the committee stage. He describes, “Thousands of bills get introduced, but only a fraction of them get consideration in committee. My dissertation attempts to explain how interest groups influence which bills clear this critical winnowing point in the legislative process.”
He is currently in the throes of writing his dissertation. “There is a preconception in the commentary about lobbying that it is evil or pulls legislators away from pursuit of the common good. Critics point to industries or sectors that are able to array vast amounts of money, direct it at legislators, and accrue political favors. My research suggests that legislative advocacy by groups lacking such resources can still be influential. Committee chairs, in selecting bills for committee consideration, try to pursue personal objectives through their agenda-setting decisions. However, they have difficulty determining which bills are likely to be most helpful to them. By looking at which groups are aligned for or against a bill, chairs learn about the interests at stake in it and how likely it is to pass. I hypothesize that chairs attend to industries or social groups important to their own district, and look for ideologically broad, diverse coalitions that can appeal to many other legislators. Thus, my dissertation suggests that one factor of an interest group’s influence is its distinctiveness from other groups lobbying on the same bills. If this theory is right, even poorly-resourced groups can benefit from strategically building coalitions with other groups.”
He continues, “My research benefits from the painstaking work of a transparency organization that has documented which groups have lobbied for or against thousands of recent bills. In addition to the questions I specifically ask in my dissertation, these data allow researchers to investigate fundamental questions that have previously been intractable for such a wide range of bills: for example, does having more interest groups supporting a bill make it more likely to pass? Are legislators more responsive to the preferences of industries and social groups that have given more campaign contributions? The data’s ability to answer these and other questions can help us better understand the sources of interest group influence.” Geoff explains.
A recipient of a 2016-2017 predoctoral fellowship, Geoff says, “Across UMich, there are a lot of people doing fascinating work. I’m very grateful and I very much appreciate that Rackham decided to award me this fellowship. I hope that the work that I do reflects well on that decision.”
Grad school at Michigan has been a wonderful experience for Geoff. He shares, “My experience at Michigan has been nothing short of incredible. At U-M, people are both personable and really compelling. Grad school is a war of attrition you fight against yourself. It’s really hard on everyone, and very challenging and arduous. But, it is made possible and actually quite enjoyable by the fact that you are all engaging in this struggle together and succeeding together.”
Geoff describes the environment in his department as extremely collaborative. He illustrates his point describing first year immersion in econometrics coursework that involved delving into sophisticated training in statistics and game theory. He says, “Learning this was really hard, but it was made significantly easier by doing it together. I have memories of people at my house doing game theory on my floor-length mirror until 3 in the morning. It made us all very close friends.”
Geoff is pursuing academic jobs in the next year, balancing a career search, finishing his dissertation, and going on long trail runs. He shares, “I’ve taken up running recently and find it helpful for clearing my mind and overcoming writer’s block. My wife and I also share love of board games and find it a good excuse to have lots of friends over.”