My published research focuses on organized interests, lobbying, agenda-setting, and public policy decision-making. My ongoing work broadly examines the policy process and the political actors that attempt to garner favorable policy outcomes, with recent substantive applications to the politics of public health and disasters.
LaPira, Timothy M. and Herschel F. Thomas. 2017. Revolving Door Lobbying: Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests. University Press of Kansas.
Overview: In recent decades Washington has seen an alarming rise in the number of “revolving door lobbyists”—politicians and officials cashing in on their government experience to become influence peddlers on K Street. These lobbyists, popular wisdom suggests, sell access to the highest bidder. Revolving Door Lobbying
tells a different, more nuanced story. As an insider interviewed in the book observes, where the general public has the “impression that lobbyists actually get things done
, I would say 90 percent of what lobbyists do is prevent harm to their client from the government.”
Drawing on extensive new data on lobbyists’ biographies and interviews with dozens of experts, authors Timothy M. LaPira and Herschel F. Thomas establish the facts of the revolving door phenomenon—facts that suggest that, contrary to widespread assumptions about insider access, special interests hire these lobbyists as political insurance against an increasingly dysfunctional, unpredictable government. With their insider experience, revolving door lobbyists offer insight into the political process, irrespective of their connections to current policymakers. What they provide to their clients is useful and marketable political risk-reduction. Exploring this claim, LaPira and Thomas present a systematic analysis of who revolving door lobbyists are, how they differ from other lobbyists, what interests they represent, and how they seek to influence public policy.
The first book to marshal comprehensive evidence of revolving door lobbying, LaPira and Thomas revise the notion that lobbyists are inherently and institutionally corrupt. Rather, the authors draw a complex and sobering picture of the revolving door as a consequence of the eroding capacity of government to solve the public’s problems.
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Sledge, Daniel and Herschel. F. Thomas. 2019. From Disaster Response to Community Recovery: Nongovernmental Entities, Government, and Public Health.American Journal of Public Health, forthcoming.
Thomas, Herschel F. and Timothy M. LaPira. 2017. How Many Lobbyists Are in Washington?: Shadow Lobbying and the Gray Market for Political Advocacy. Interest Groups and Advocacy, 6(3):199-214.
In this article, we examine the role of nongovernmental entities (NGEs; nonprofits, religious groups, and businesses) in disaster response and recovery. Although media reports and the existing scholarly literature focus heavily on the role of governments, NGEs provide critical services related to public safety and public health after disasters. NGEs are crucial because of their ability to quickly provide services, their flexibility, and their unique capacity to reach marginalized populations. To examine the role of NGEs, we surveyed 115 NGEs engaged in disaster response. We also conducted extensive field work, completing 44 hours of semistructured interviews with staff from NGEs and government agencies in postdisaster areas in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, Northern California, and Southern California. Finally, we compiled quantitative data on the distribution of nonprofit organizations. We found that, in addition to high levels of variation in NGE resources across counties, NGEs face serious coordination and service delivery problems. Federal funding for expanding the capacity of local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster groups, we suggest, would help NGEs and government to coordinate response efforts and ensure that recoveries better address underlying social and economic vulnerabilities. Available here
Thomas, Herschel F. 2017. Modeling Contagion in Policy Systems. Cognitive Systems Research, 44:74-88.
How many lobbyists are in Washington, and how common is it for them to have worked in the federal government? We assume that high-profile cases like former Senator Tom Daschle—the namesake of the so-called Daschle loophole to the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) in the USA—are not isolated. In this article, we systematically account for lobbying and policy advocacy in as large an empirical scope as possible to uncover the presence of ‘shadow lobbyists.’ Using a new data set of professional biographies of both registered lobbyists and unregistered policy advocates, we estimate that there are an equal number of paid professionals in a gray market for lobbying services. We also find that registered lobbyists are more likely to have previously worked in government and are more likely to specialize in legislative advocacy. Since policymaking at the American national level has increasingly shifted to federal agencies and to the states, our results indicate that the LDA and similar lobbying regulations may be becoming increasingly obsolete. The evidence we present indicates a growing divide between transparency laws and recent changes in the marketplace for policy advocacy. Available here
LaPira, Timothy M., Herschel F. Thomas, and Frank R. Baumgartner. 2014. Washington Lobbyists in the Core and on the Periphery. Interest Groups and Advocacy, 3(3): 219-245.
Scholars of the policy process offer compelling explanations for patterns in the aggregate-level attention of policymakers. Yet, we have little systematic understanding of the day-to-day behavior of these individuals. Why does a given policymaker, on a given day, decide to focus on one pressing issue while ignoring many others? I approach this question from a cognitive systems perspective and argue that policymakers are highly interdependent actors who are subject to cognitive limits and have incentives to closely monitor the political environment. These tendencies contribute to the emergence of widespread herd behavior in their individual attention to policy issues, a phenomenon I conceptualize as ‘issue contagion.’ I then utilize the methods of computational social science to build an agent-based simulation model of policymakers’ issue attention over time. I also outline three empirical expectations regarding the density of communication ties between actors, the presence of segmented groups (e.g. political parties and coalitions), and the rate at which actors take cues from one another. Through a series of sensitivity tests, I document the internal validity of the model and show that incremental changes in network density, segmentation, and cue-taking all generate clear and visible trends in the frequency of issue contagion events. Available here
Boydstun, Amber E., Shaun Bevan, and Herschel F. Thomas. 2014. The Importance of Attention Diversity and How to Measure It. Policy Studies Journal, 42(2): 173-196.
For decades, political scientists have had two divergent views on lobbyists in Washington. On the one hand they focus on the privileged access of a few groups in balkanized issue niches, and on the other they observe highly inclusive lobbying campaigns where hundreds of lobbyists vigorously compete for policymakers’ attention. Not surprisingly, these disparate observations lead to contradictory conclusions about lobbying tactics, relations with relevant policymakers and the nature of interest group influence. In this article, we make a simple, yet novel, empirical observation: these seemingly incongruent observations of lobbying at the micro level are not inconsistent when we uncover the structure of lobbyists’ interactions at the macro level. That is, both views are correct, depending on the policy context. Using data from 248,543 Lobbying Disclosure Act reports filed between 1998 and 2008 – which consists of 1,557,526 observations of 32,700 individual lobbyists reporting activity in 78 issue areas – we reveal that the Washington lobbying community has a fundamental and stable core–periphery structure. We then document how the empirically derived core–periphery mapping is a superior way to differentiate bandwagon or niche policy domains. As transaction cost theory suggests, we find that policy domains in the core have more in-house lobbyists and more revolving door lobbyists. And, on average, lobbyists active in core domains represent a greater diversity of interests and tend to be policy generalists. Available here
Theriault, Sean T. and Herschel F. Thomas. The Diffusion of Support for Same-Sex Marriage in the US Senate. 2014. PS: Political Science and Politics, 47(4): 824-828.
Studies of political attention often focus on attention to a single issue, such as front-page coverage of the economy. However, examining attention to a single issue without accounting for the agenda as a whole can lead to faulty assumptions. One solution is to consider the diversity of attention; that is, how narrowly or widely attention is distributed across items (e.g., issues on an agenda or, at a lower level, frames in an issue debate). Attention diversity is an important variable in its own right, offering insight into how agendas vary in their accessibility to policy problems and perspectives. Yet despite the importance of attention diversity, we lack a standard for how best to measure it. This paper focuses on the four most commonly used measures: the inverse Herfindahl Index, Shannon’s H, and their normalized versions. We discuss the purposes of these measures and compare them through simulations and using three real-world datasets. We conclude that both Shannon’s H and its normalized form are better measures, minimizing the danger of spurious findings that could result from the less sensitive Herfindahl measures. The choice between the Shannon’s H measures should be made based on whether variance in the total number of possible items (e.g., issues) is meaningful. Available here
Jones, Bryan D., Herschel F. Thomas, and Michelle Wolfe. 2014. Policy Bubbles. Policy Studies Journal, 42(1): 146-171.
Advocates for same-sex marriage have had much to celebrate. The last few years have shown that state after state and senator after senator have declared their support for full marriage equality. Such momentum suggests that their goals will be realized sooner rather than later. In this article, we analyze when senators announce their support for same-sex marriage. Contrary to the popularly held belief that their decisions will quickly snowball into filibuster-proof numbers, we find that most of the easy successes have already been achieved. The difficulty of securing the last few votes may take much longer. Available here
LaPira, Timothy M. and Herschel F. Thomas. 2014. The Revolving Door and Interest Representation. Interest Groups and Advocacy, 3(1): 1-26.
We develop the concept of a policy bubble to capture the notion of long-term overinvestment in a policy. In sketching the relation of policy bubbles to economic bubbles, we describe how these two concepts have similar origins but different trajectories because they are filtered by different institutions. We examine in some detail three likely instances of ongoing policy bubbles: crime policy, school reform (charter schools and private education vouchers), and the contracting and privatization of public services. We show how these cases differ from the housing bubble of 1997–2007, how they differ from each other, and the extent to which they can be considered policy bubbles. Last, we suggest this concept can help unify the policy process literature with the practice of policy evaluation and outline testable hypotheses for future research. Available here
Halpin, Darren R. and Herschel F. Thomas. 2012. Evaluating the Breadth of Policy Engagement by Organized Interests. Public Administration, 90(3): 582-599.
Although experience inside the halls of power afford lobbyists valuable political, policy and procedural skills that can improve the deliberative process, it also gives them privileged access to former employers that others do not have. Washington’s revolving door evokes legitimate ethical concerns, such as when former legislators resign their seats to take lucrative jobs representing the very industries they regulate. However, social scientists know surprisingly little about the revolving door beyond such sensational, albeit important, cases. To shed more light on the broader phenomenon, we systematically explore the revolving door on a large scale to answer a simple question: Do revolving door lobbyists represent different interests than conventional lobbyists? Using evidence from original data on the professional biographies of roughly 1,600 registered lobbyists – which we link to data from almost 50,000 quarterly Lobbying Disclosure Act reports – we find that revolving door lobbyists have worked mostly in Congress, tend to work as contract lobbyists rather than in-house government-relations staff and are more likely to specialize in lobbying for appropriations earmarks. Then, after controlling for a variety of lobbying specializations, we show that former members of Congress are no more likely than other lobbyists to attract a more economically diverse set of clients than their conventional-lobbyist counterparts. However, congressional staffers who had worked their way up the organizational ladder on Capitol Hill do. We infer that well-connected congressional staffers who spin through the revolving door sell access to key decision makers in Congress, not their industry- or issue-specific technical or substantive expertise. Available here
Halpin, Darren R. and Herschel F. Thomas III. 2012. Interest Group Survival: Exploring Mortality Anxiety. Interest Groups and Advocacy, 1(2): 215-238.
This article probes the variation in the breadth of policy engagement among organized interests. The literature, heavily shaped by large-n US studies of Washington and its lobbying system, suggests many reasons for organized interests to focus policy engagement relatively narrowly. This claim of policy specialization has been long repeated in the British public policy literature. The aim of this article is to empirically test the extent to which expectations of narrowed engagement hold in a UK context. This article uses a new Scottish dataset that tracks actual engagement by any organized interest on executive policy consultations over a 25-year period. It tracks over 90,000 ‘mobilization events’ by over 18,000 organizations in 1,690 distinct consultation issues across the entire Scottish policy system. In analysing these data, we concern ourselves with establishing: (1) the extent of generalized engagement; (2) the type of organized interests that are more or less general in their engagement; and (3) the extent to which a specialized style of policy engagement is on the increase over time. In the process, we develop measures that are appropriate for assessing breadth of engagement using issue-based policy data. Available here
Maitland, Carleen, Herschel F. Thomas III, and Louis-Marie Ngamassi. 2012. Internet Censorship and the Protection of Human Rights: An Organizational Informatics Perspective. Journal of Information Technology, 27(4): 285-300.
In order to engage in public policy, interest groups need to survive and thrive as organizations. What factors shape perceptions of group entrepreneurs as to the future prospects for their groups’ survival? The careful and ambitious work of Gray and Lowery (and others working in the population ecology paradigm) has drawn attention to that fact that not all groups that are born survive. This observation raises the question: what leads groups to ‘feel’ anxiety about their organizational mortality? In their 1997 article, utilizing survey data on the organizational characteristics and situational dynamics of a sample of groups lobbying in several US states, Gray and Lowery asked just that question: what are the levels of ‘mortality anxiety’ among groups still alive? In this article, we revisit this question using similar data, but with some additional variables, and for a non-US case (namely, post-devolution Scottish public policy). In sorting out what factors are associated with anxiety, our analysis seeks to weigh up the existing ecological emphasis on broad shifts in population-level forces (that is, competition) with group-level variables reflecting adaptive changes (that is, identity, uniqueness, changes). Available here
Using an organizational informatics approach, this study explores the implications of human rights organizations’ use of censorship circumvention technologies. Through qualitative analyses of data collected through in-depth interviews, the research examines the factors influencing the use of circumvention technologies and the organizational effects of their use. The outcomes include a revised model of censorship circumvention technology use as well as a new model situating human rights organizations and their audiences in bidirectional information flows. The research provides recommendations for practice as well as insight for organizational informatics and information systems security research in the areas of protective technologies, awareness, detection, and physical security. Available here
Jones, Bryan D. and Herschel F. Thomas. 2017 (in press). The Cognitive Underpinnings of Policy Process Studies: Introduction to a Special Issue of Cognitive Systems Research. Cognitive Systems Research.
This article introduces the special issue of Cognitive Systems Research
on public policy processes. We begin with a discussion of the cognitive foundations of public policy that stem from the complexity of human cognition and emotion. Next, we provide an overview of the articles in the special issue, which occur at the edge of a public policy-cognitive systems boundary. We then turn to a discussion of promising new work in the study of public policy that explores—or may benefit from—the cognitive systems perspective. Available here
Lewallen, Jonathan and Herschel F. Thomas III. 2016. Bounded Rationality. In Stephen Schecter (Ed.), American Governance. Macmillan Reference.
Jones, Bryan D. and Herschel F. Thomas III. 2012. Bounded Rationality and Public Policy Decision-Making. In E. Araral, S. Fritzen, M. Howlett, M. Ramesh, and X. Wu (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Public Policy. New York, NY: Routledge.