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June 9 — House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has named three members to a bipartisan commission that will study ways to use program data better to measure the effectiveness of federal tax and spending programs, bringing the panel closer to a full roster.
Ryan's selections late June 7 bring the total number of publicly named appointees to 10, including both co-chairpersons. But with five vacancies remaining to be filled, it is unclear how soon the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission will get off the ground.
Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) pushed for creation of the commission shortly after negotiating an appropriations deal to keep the government open in 2013, while serving respectively as chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees. The commission is charged with analyzing how federal data is currently utilized and whether it can better organized to improve research on the effectiveness of federal tax and spending programs.
Evidence-based policymaking proponents say better measurement of the impact of policies can help government spend more wisely on what works and avoid what doesn't work. But the data that could help researchers study those questions better is often spread between various agencies and subject to federal privacy protections that make it hard for researchers to access.
Ryan tapped three scholars for the panel, including Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in economic studies at the centrist Brookings Institution who will serve as co-chairperson. The White House has already named former Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Katharine Abraham as the other chairperson. Haskins has been at Brookings since 2001, where he has focused on poverty, inequality, and family policy.
The speaker's other choices were Bruce Meyer, a professor at the University of Chicago, and Robert Hahn, an economics professor at the University of Oxford and a non-resident Brookings fellow. Meyer's recent research has looked at trends in poverty and inequality, the consequences of disability, the effects of Medicaid and the accuracy of household surveys, according to biographical information on the University of Chicago's website.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to name his three selections for the panel and President Barack Obama has two remaining picks.
With little debate, the House and Senate passed legislation in March (Pub. L. No. 114-140) to establish the panel. (See previous story, 03/18/16)
The law gives Obama and the four party caucus leaders in Congress three appointments each, but requires at least three-quarters of members to sign off on any final report and recommendations. The report must be submitted to the White House no later than 15 months after a majority of the panel's members have been named.
The broad charge of the panel has heartened advocates of the evidence-based approach, even as it raised questions about what kind of recommendations it might make.
Patrick Lester, director of the Washington-based Social Innovation Research Center, said there is a need to build a base of data that policymakers can then tie to program funding levels, increasing resources for programs that work while reducing funding to those that don't. The panel, he said, will help with the data-building part of that equation.
“Everyone thinks this is a good step. I don't think anyone is 100 percent sure what will come out of this,” he said. “My guess is they will come up some obscure but important recommendations.” Those recommendations could easily include changes in law, Lester said.
Balancing privacy protections with access to data is a likely source for debate on the panel. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) stalled the legislation creating the panel until he won agreement for a provision mandating that data privacy and data minimization experts be part of the panel's membership.
Still, economists and researchers appear most represented on the roster among those appointed so far—though some of the economists also have backgrounds in data privacy. For example, Abraham as a former BLS chief had oversight of the extensive surveys used to compile the monthly jobless report. Another appointee, Georgetown University Provost Robert Groves, also served as director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 2009 to 2012.
Groves was named by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose other appointments were Jeff Liebman, a Harvard University professor of public policy and former Obama Office of Management and Budget official, and Kim Wallin, a former Nevada state controller.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) picks included Sherry Glied, an expert on health care policy and dean of New York University's graduate school for public service; Hilary Hoynes, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California-Berkeley; and Latanya Sweeney, a professor of government and technology at Harvard University.
Sweeney, as head of Harvard's Data Privacy Lab, may have the most extensive experience in looking at privacy and personal data. The Privacy Lab is a program that explores “the evolving relationship between technology and the legal right to or public expectation of privacy in the collection and sharing of data,” according to its website.
Another potential flashpoint could be what kinds of data and programs are examined. The House Republicans recent “A Better Way” list of ideas to reduce poverty mentioned the importance of taking an evidence-based approach and cited the panel as an example. “Many decisions on program design and funding are made based on poor quality studies, anecdotes or testimonials, or well-meaning program operators who believe their program is effective,” according to the document.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said he didn't think tax-related initiatives would be a “main focus” of the commission.
“But the commission is incredibly important because it's a whole fresh look at how we use data that local companies use all the time to keep people healthy, to address their skills, to measure results,” he said. Brady said the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit were two areas that the panel might examine.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said the effectiveness of tax breaks also needs to be looked at. “They may want to apply that to tax policy, because their theocracy is that if you cut taxes, things get better,” he said.
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