Amid Rancor, Evidence-Based Policy Panel Leaders Optimistic

By Jonathan Nicholson

You’ll see us in September and we’re bringing recommendations.

That’s the word from Katharine Abraham and Ron Haskins, two long-time fixtures in Washington’s wonk circuit.

And it’s a surprising message from the pair, who head the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, a 15-member panel created to bring together experts in social policy, data and privacy to figure out how to make federal data on spending and tax programs more useful and accessible.

While the rest of Washington has been transfixed on a presidency critics say is immune to appeals from policy and research, and on a Congress whose levels of partisanship have edged ever higher, Haskins and Abraham say they will get the needed supermajority vote to issue a set of recommendations that will include both administrative and legislative changes.

“We’re targeting Sept. 7,” Abraham, a labor economist who served in the Obama White House, told Bloomberg BNA in a recent joint telephone interview with Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior fellow known for poverty program research. “At this point, we’re full bore into the deliberative phase of the process.”

One closed meeting to discuss the recommendations is set for later this month, with two more in July, to review the report draft.

Roots in Shutdown

While the law creating the commission (Pub. L. No. 114-140) was signed only a little over a year ago, the circumstances of its creation appear vastly different from Washington’s current political climate.

The commission’s charge—to look at how various types of data gathered by federal agencies can be better organized and more accessible to researchers so they can study the effectiveness of federal programs—arose from the 16-day 2013 government shutdown.

Then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and then-Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) negotiated a small budget deal to reopen the government. After that deal, the two kept in contact and agreed there needed to be more research on what did and didn’t work in federal spending and tax programs, sometimes a point of contention during the shutdown talks.

With Ryan’s ascension to House Speaker in 2015, the idea gained momentum and, after some last-minute tweaks in the Senate, the measure creating the panel was sent to President Barack Obama in March 2016.

Abraham, an Obama appointee, is the panel’s chair, with Haskins, a Ryan appointee, as co-chair. Each of the four leaders at the Capitol named three members, who had to be researchers or data experts, have experience in program administration or have expertise in protecting personally identifiable information and data minimization.

The roster includes a diverse set of members, ranging from a former Nevada State Controller to an Obama-era Office of Management and Budget acting deputy director to a former chief technology officer at the Federal Trade Commission.

Between its bipartisan appointments, specified deadline and requirement for a supermajority vote to issue a report, it may be the highest-profile bipartisan commission in Washington since the ill-fated 2010 Bowles-Simpson panel was appointed to come up with a deficit reduction “grand bargain.” That panel never reached agreement.

Agreement by Early July

While the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking is much narrower in scope than its 2010 counterpart, a skeptic might think a bipartisan panel of wonks, some of whom were appointed by the now-departed Obama and former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), making recommendations on data management in the current political climate would face an uphill battle.

Not so, said Haskins. Over the course of the panel’s existence since it first met July 22, 2016, the members have gotten to know and trust each other, he said.

“Most people didn’t know the other commissioners when we started, but we know them now, very well. That, knowing the individuals, plus the way the meetings have gone and the nature of the discussions, makes us think we will reach agreement in the end,” he said. “There might be a person here or there that objects on a certain thing, but we’re pretty confident we can work it out.”

“I think everybody is optimistic that we’re going to reach agreement by early July,” he said.

The panel has not been completely under the radar since its creation. Ryan, in rolling out House Republicans’ anti-poverty plank of its “Better Way” compilation of ideas in the summer of 2016, cited the panel and how its proposals could help researchers find out what works and what doesn’t in helping the impoverished.

Replacement a Positive

Abraham said the replacement of one commission member—Allison Orris, who represented the OMB under Obama—with Nancy Potok, an OMB statistician, shows there is interest in the panel from the Trump White House.

“I personally took that as a very positive sign, if you take into context where there are a lot of positions in government that people have not been appointed to fill yet,” she said.

“It would be great to have the administration involved in this. As Katharine points out, we don’t have any indication that they’re not going to be. But we can still proceed and do a lot, working with the Congress,” Haskins said.

Some of the recommendations will be for administrative changes to the way government handles data, but some will require legislative changes, Abraham said. While many of the changes are expected to be technical in nature, federal research in the past has often drawn criticism from lawmakers, as evidenced by opposition to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or experiments by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Availability, Confidentiality

Haskins said the commission will not shy away from controversial topics.

“There’s nothing that’s politically hot that we have deliberately eliminated from our agenda. We’re aware that some of the things that we could make recommendations on would be controversial and I think inevitably we will recommend things that will create some controversies,” Haskins said.

Abraham said the intent is to make data more available to researchers, who can use it to suggest improvements to federal programs that will make them cheaper and more effective.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to come up with a set of recommendations that both, if implemented, would make data more available but also would improve on the privacy, confidentiality, data security front,” she said. “And we think there are ways to do that and that’s what we’re striving for.”

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