Boosting integrity of federal policymaking is an easy win for Congress

Boosting integrity of federal policymaking is an easy win for Congress

Congress returned to Washington this week faced with a crushing year-end legislative agenda. But one bill, at least, holds the promise of genuine, bipartisan support. The House easily passed the “Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017” before Thanksgiving.

The bill, introduced by Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Kelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) in the House and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDems to propose legislation to prevent ICE from shackling pregnant women Top Dems urge Trump officials to reverse suspension of ObamaCare payments Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families MORE (D-Wash.) in the Senate, may be the only piece of legislation under consideration by the 115th Congress that can claim such broad support.

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Republicans, even with their majority in Congress, have had enough problems lassoing their own colleagues on legislative initiatives (like the tax bill) and have had even less success reaching across the aisle. In fact, enough legislation has passed with the slimmest-possible margin that Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceLewandowski: Trump-Putin meeting advances goal of world peace Indiana has spent over million on cleanup of failed Pence family gas stations: report What really happened with the breastfeeding scandal in Geneva MORE is on track to cast a record number of tie-breaking votes in the Senate.

 

The act and its outside supporters seem to be heading in the right direction for improving the use of data in government policymaking. Increasing evaluation capacity and overcoming persistent barriers to effective review of government programs will require long-term commitment and a holistic approach. The House passed the bill on Nov. 15, and its companion bill in the Senate has been referred to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

This bill would implement several recommendations the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking presented to Congress and the president earlier this year. Congress established the commission —composed of 15 members with a diverse range of expertise — during the Obama administration, charging it with finding ways for the government to improve its programs through more effective and efficient use of evidence and better sharing and protection of data.

Major elements of the House-passed bill include:

  • requiring for federal agencies to submit an annual evidence-building plan for consolidation into a single, government-wide plan by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • appointing or designating a Chief Evaluation Officer in every agency
  • establishing a government-wide advisory committee on evidence-based policymaking and an interagency council on evaluation policy led by OMB.

Title II of the bill, the Open Government Data Act, contains several provisions to increase the amount of government data available to the public. The bill also advances several initiatives aimed at increasing privacy standards and reducing improper use of data.

It is worth noting that although these proposals shine a light on the importance of improving the use of evidence and evaluation capacity building within the federal government, substantive change will likely require future congressional action in response to the advisory committee and OMB’s findings.

As the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center pointed out last year in a public comment to the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, agency actions — including those implemented through regulation — are tightly prescribed and constrained by numerous legislative and executive requirements.

For example, an agency’s statutory requirements may prevent it from considering certain data or sharing it with other agencies. In such cases, future action by Congress may be necessary to create the flexibility to implement better evidence-based practices.

One glaring omission in the bill is that Title I does not apply to independent regulatory agencies. This means that policies set by agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would not benefit from the bill’s evidence-building activities.

This is especially disappointing since research shows independent regulatory commissions already lag behind their executive branch counterparts when it comes to rigorous analysis supporting their policies. This week’s confusion regarding who is actually in charge at the CFPB underscores the challenges that come with treating independent agencies differently.

Given the pressures legislators face to pass tax reform, avoid a government shut-down, and address other items in the few days left in the 2017 legislative calendar, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act is unlikely to rise to the top of the Senate’s priority list.

However, when they go home for the December recess, members are likely to get an earful from constituents over their lack of legislative progress. Passing this bill will not only help them show that both parties can come together to support common-sense reforms, but would herald an important first step in improving the integrity of federal policymaking.

Susan E. Dudley is director and Daniel R. Pérez is a policy analyst with the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.