How Obama and Ryan can become bipartisan budget bedfellows

Now that both President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have drawn their lines in the sand with their spending priorities, it’s clear that as we approach the midterm elections, the budget road ahead will not be easy. Bridging the two approaches will take tough but necessary choices to restore our nation’s strong fiscal footing and put us on a path toward economic growth. Finding that path depends on the willingness of lawmakers to reject entrenched ideals, stand up to special interests and refocus their attention away from how much government spends and more on how government spends our money.

Today, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence-based evaluation. This is simply unacceptable. As our population continues to grow and we face more competition on the international stage – every dollar we spend counts and in no other area is that more important than in domestic discretionary spending; the money spent on solving problems right here at home.

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Especially in this time of abundant challenges and limited dollars, we must seriously reexamine how efficiently money is being spent at all levels and the results that are produced. Chairman Ryan's budget proposal scratches the surface of this issue by eliminating programs like the Social Service Block Grant that do not provide evidence of its effectiveness. As a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, I applaud Ryan’s efforts but would also like point out that he may find an even more effective solution for his pending budget proposal in an unlikely place – President Obama’s budget evaluation requests.

Though otherwise laden with unrealistic spending priorities, Obama’s budget allows one percent of Department of Labor funds and 0.5 percent of Department of Education dollars to be spent on rigorous evaluation. For conservative budget hawks, evaluation translates to more spending and other critics argue that setting aside any program dollars pull critical funds away from programs, decreasing the level of services provided.

However – if you read the fine print - Obama requests that only existing dollars be used for evaluation to inform future spending decisions. Linking federal dollars to evaluation results got it legs when I served as chair of the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush administration. By investing a small portion into the evaluation of programs, we began to learn and base decisions on which programs should receive increased investment, which ones have room for improvement and, even which programs should be eliminated.

The bottom line is this - if we don’t invest in research and evaluation, how can we ensure those program dollars are being effectively spent? One solution that is supported by a growing coalition of bipartisan leaders including former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers Glen Hubbard, is applying the “Moneyball” formula popularized by author Michael Lewis.

Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, transformed the world of high stakes professional sports by relying on data to build championship contending teams despite a limited budget. By applying moneyball principles, and using data to inform decisions, lawmakers can also work to improve the likelihood that federal spending with yield results with limited discretionary funds - from anti-poverty initiatives to workforce training programs.

Congress and the administration must do more to build a culture of evidence and evaluation across government and restore the American peoples’ faith in how their money is spent. Congressional leaders should support Obama’s evaluation proposal and take a strong step forward by requiring that one percent of existing federal program funds across all federal departments are invested in rigorous, independent, third-party evaluations. Regular, rigorous, evidence-based evaluations of programs will ensure policymakers have the best information available to help them make an informed decision about our nations spending priorities.

Naysayers contend that we cannot expect government officials to be fair referees in evaluating the programs they oversee.  But as I saw through my time as chair of the House Budget Committee and director of the Office of Management and Budget, high quality evaluations can be done within and outside the government.  Whether completed by government agencies, private sector research institutions or nonprofits, the American people deserve to know whether their tax dollars are being wisely invested.

President Obama and Chairman Ryan – are you ready to play Moneyball?

Nussle represented Iowa congressional districts from 1991 to 2007, was chairman of the House Budget Committee from 2001 to 2007 and served as director of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration.  He is an adviser for Results for America, an initiative of America Achieves, an organization dedicated to improving education.