Evidenced-based policymaking is the perfect Washington contradiction. Using facts and data isn’t what politicians who make policy do. Their real talent is creating, distorting, or outright ignoring the truth to get what they want. Both sides do it and they aren’t very good at hiding it, whether the goal is creating a hate crime trend or rationalizing spending more money with the hope that we can tax our way to prosperity later.
Policymaking has little or nothing to do with the real world. It has to do with politics and the world policymakers live in.
Evidence-based policymaking sounds smart, at first
Then-Representative Paul Ryan joined with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) in 2015 to promote the idea of making policy based on real live data about what we get for our tax dollars:
If we want to make government more effective, we need to know what works,” said Rep. Ryan. “Too often, Washington rewards effort instead of results, and this commission will help us change the focus.1
Barack Obama put the idea into law and established the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission when he signed H.R. 1831 on March 30, 2016. The bill created:
… a Commission to study and make recommendations on the Federal Government’s collection, storage, and use of administrative data for “evidence-building” research purposes;2
You can read the commission’s September 2017 report here. It’s a whole lot of bureaucracy designed to fulfill a noble goal: better policymaking based on the facts.
Just the facts doesn’t work
Is it safe for the House leadership to rely on the facts?
Republicans face the insurmountable obstacle of making good on a promise for tax reform that feels uncomfortably like fixing health care. Republicans pursued that mission for years. When the time came to stand up for what they said they so fervently believed in when they wanted our votes, we found out that they didn’t even have a bill they could agree on.
The facts were there. The data was collected. None of it helped in a town that thrives on hyperbole, bombast, backstabbing, infighting, obfuscation, and outright lies.
Evidence won’t fight a conflicted war on poverty
Speaker Ryan is no stranger to the war on poverty. Fighting poverty was one of the rungs in his party’s Better Way ladder to fixing what ails America.
The speaker used the war on poverty as his example in a September 7, 2017 press conference that talked about evidence-based policymaking:
You look at something like the war on poverty—you look at something like the fact that we’ve been at this for decades, but the needle has barely moved.3
Republicans and the war on poverty are an uncomfortable mix. Fixing poverty has never been about the numbers, facts, or truth. It’s been about partisan posturing and political power. Democrats give. Republicans take away. That’s how it works. A GOP war on poverty is an oxymoron that, frankly, few Americans are going to take seriously no matter how much data we have to prove how little progress has been made since the Johnson days.
Evidence-based tax reform is a desperate prank
It doesn’t take a lobbyist to know where Ryan’s renewed emphasis on evidence-based policymaking is going to take us. A September 7, 2017 press conference stirred hurricanes, tax reform, and evidence-based policymaking in one expensive pot.
The speaker has committed to starting “the new year with a new tax system.”5 House Progressive Caucus members came up with their own budget in May 2017. It’s a far cry from what the GOP considers responsible and tells us just how far apart conservative and liberal policymakers are on where our money should go and how much we should spend.
Conservative members of the House and Senate and their Republican base are going to want some action on our unsustainable debt. They are going to demand spending cuts. Social programs that don’t contribute much to the debt and don’t demonstrate great success will be on the chopping block.
What will happen when the evidence says many of our beloved safety nets are failures that waste money?
Politicians will resort to politicking, the same thing that killed Obamacare reform.
1. “Evidence-Based Policy: Murray, Ryan Introduce Bill to Expand Data Use in Evaluating Federal Programs, Tax Expenditures.” Committee on Ways and Means. U.S. House of Representatives. April 17, 2015. https://waysandmeans.house.gov/evidence-based-policy-murray-ryan-introduce-bill-to-expand-data-use-in-evaluating-federal-programs-tax-expenditures/, retrieved September 8, 2017.
2. “Statement by the Press Secretary on H.R. 1831, H.R. 4721.” March 30, 2016. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/31/statement-press-secretary-hr-1831-hr-4721, retrieved September 7, 2017.
3. “The Promise of Evidence-Based Policymaking” Report of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. September 2017. https://www.cep.gov/content/dam/cep/report/cep-final-report.pdf, retrieved September 7, 2017.
4. “RECAP: Speaker Ryan Talks Disaster Relief, Tax Reform, Evidence-Based Policymaking during Weekly Presser.” Speaker Paul Ryan. September 7, 2017. http://www.speaker.gov/general/recap-speaker-ryan-talks-disaster-relief-tax-reform-evidence-based-policymaking-during, retrieved September 7, 2017.