Laboratories of Politics: There is Bottom-up Diffusion of Policy Attention in the American Federal System

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 2943
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211068059
Laboratories of Politics: There is
Bottom-up Diffusion of Policy Attention in
the American Federal System
Alex Garlick
A persistent question in the study of American federalism is if the states actually serve as laboratories of democracyfor
the country as a whole. I argue that political attention to policy areas can diffuse upwards, from state legislatures to
Congress. National and state legislators share a party brand and can learn from policy debates in other levels. In
particular, we should expect to see the diffusion of messaging legislation, or bills that were introduced without the
intention of becoming law, after members of Congress observe their political effects in the sta tes. Using an original
dataset of introduced bills in all 50 state legislatures in 22 policy areas since 1991 drawn from LexisNexis, I show a
positive association between changes in the number of state legislative bills introduced in 12 policy areas and the number
of Congressional bills introduced in the next session, which is taken as evidence of bottom-updiffusion. This re-
lationship is more prevalent between Republican state legislators and members of Congre ss, within state delegations, and
in issue areas where the interest group community lobbies before both the states and national government. To the extent
that states are laboratories for the nation, they may be political laboratories.
state politics, text as data, policy, legislation, federalism
Americans have long believed in the promise of the states
serving as the laboratories of democracy,where lessons
from a states policy implementation could later benef‌it
the country at large. For example, President Barack
Obama said the ideas in the 2010 Affordable Care Act
(ACA) were from a 2006 Massachusetts law.
But the
ACA may be an exception to the rule, as scholars have
found scant evidence of bottom-up diffusion on
isolated policies (Weissert and Scheller, 2008;
Mossberger, 1999) or across the agenda (Lowery et al.,
While policy may not often travel up the federal ladder,
scholars have argued that attention to different policy
areas can diffuse upwards (Karch and Rosenthal, 2016;
Shipan and Volden, 2006). Even if a policy is not im-
plemented, legislators at one level can learn from the
political experience of their counterparts. The policy
debate in a different venue can reveal important political
information about public opinion, media coverage, and
interest group positions. For example, in 2013, the Ar-
kansas legislature overrode Gov. Mike Beebes(D) veto to
pass a Heartbeatbill that bans abortions after an ul-
trasound can detect a fetal heartbeat. Beebe had called the
bill blatantly unconstitutional
and federal courts
agreed, striking the bill down. Despite the legal opposition
to the bill, in the 2015 legislative sessions, heartbeat bills
were introduced in nine different states.
In 2017, Rep.
Steve King (R-IA) introduced the f‌irst heartbeat bill in the
U.S. House of Representatives,
and it has since been
introduced in each subsequent Congress. So while
heartbeat bills are not a successful policy experiment from
the states, they clearly have a political utility to national
I argue that conditions in the United States are ripe for
the vertical diffusion of attention, particularly in a bottom-
up fashion. National and state legislators share a party
brandconsisting on positions on a host of issues and can
introduce bills to satisfy intense policy demanding interest
groups (Bawn et al., 2012), and focus media and public
Political Science, The College of New Jersey, Ewing, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alex Garlick, Political Science, The College of New Jersey, 2000
Pennington Road, Ewing, NJ 08628-0718, USA.

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