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The war on analysis under the Trump administration

Aaron Schwartz

The field of policy analysis is now several generations old. While its roots lie in the conviction that became prominent during the Progressive Era that policy problems had optimal solutions, and those solutions could be found, the discipline of policy analysis really began to flourish in government in the 1960s. First in the Department of Defense under Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids,” and then expanding to social programs during the Johnson administration, policy analysis permeated the government. Schools and degrees of policy analysis spread throughout the United States, and eventually the world.

Three of the more comprehensive forms of analysis — cost-benefit analysis, environmental impact analysis, and risk assessment — built upon this growth, rising in importance in the 1970s. Their use was particularly prominent in the design and analysis of regulations — an increasingly important policy tool.   

Presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, despite their different ideologies, endorsed the use of various forms of analysis to try and make better public policies. There was a rough bipartisan consensus that striving to improve analysis and using it to improve policy was a worthwhile endeavor. As with many other prior areas of consensus, the Trump administration has moved in a different direction. 

The attacks on the use of social science (which have been roughly parallel to the Trump administration’s approach to hard science, covered well elsewhere) have rarely been explicit. But the implicit attacks, in addition to weakening the decisions being made, have worrisome long term implications.

Here are four examples of the erosion of policy analysis:

  1. From 1981 until 2017, White House review of agency regulations was governed by a set of executive orders that required agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to show that the benefits of their decisions justified their costs. While not discarding this practice, one of the first things the Trump administration did was issue Executive Order 13771, which required agencies to discard two regulations for every new one they issued and to adhere to a regulatory budget. Both of these new requirements essentially tell agencies that when evaluating new regulations, costs matter but benefits (such as lives extended or cancers averted) do not. This approach goes against four decades of agreement that all impacts of government decisions should be considered. It also goes against the ethos of policy analysis generally and cost-benefit analysis in particular.
  2. In some cases, the Trump administration has ignored requirements to conduct analysis and to consider public input altogether. One example of ignoring analysis occurred in December 2017. The Department of Labor proposed repealing an Obama-era regulation creating new requirements for employers to share tip money with waiters. The repeal would have resulted in the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars from workers to employers. The Department of Labor originally conducted an analysis but then refused to make it public (as is required) likely fearing the political consequences of the result of the analysis. Another example is a recent proposal curbing food stamp benefits for 1.7 million people that almost entirely ignored the impacts on those recipients.
  3. Congress requires the executive branch to report annually on the costs and benefits of regulations and on the burdens of information collections on the American public. It is not unusual for these reports to be late or for administrations to play down their release (they often contain politically unpleasant information). But two and a half years into the Trump administration and there has only been one draft (not final) cost-benefit report, and no Information Collection Budgets.
  4. Various agencies have also begun approaches to revise the way they actually conduct more comprehensive forms of policy analysis, generally with the apparent intent of making them less comprehensive. The Council on Environmental Quality has proposed guidance that would minimize the consideration of climate impacts in environmental impact statements, and is considering broader changes to required environmental analyses. EPA has also floated the idea of making their cost-benefit analyses less comprehensive.

No administration is perfect when it comes to doing or using analysis of its own decisions. When an analysis shows that your preferred policies have negative impacts, the incentives to downplay those results are tremendous. Despite this, presidents of both parties have consistently worked to require various forms of analysis and to refine the analytical techniques behind them. 

Courts have come to increasingly rely on these analyses in judging whether agencies have been arbitrary and capricious in making their decisions.

But what if the analyses themselves are increasingly arbitrary and capricious? Or what if they aren’t done at all? 

The long-term effects of degrading the role of analysis in the process of making government decisions are almost all harmful. Decisions will become less transparent. They will be harder for the public, for courts, and for public officeholders to evaluate. And those decisions will further public cynicism that all government decisions are designed to serve special interests rather than promote the general welfare.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.

Tags Barack Obama Cost–benefit analysis Donald Trump Environmental impact assessment Evaluation methods policy analysis

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