A Republican View of Evidence: An Interview with Congressman Todd Young

This is the first in a series of interviews with influential Republicans and Democrats in Congress about evidence and innovation issues.

Congressman Todd Young (R-IN) is seen as a Republican leader on social welfare issues. He is the second-ranking Republican member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, which conducted a hearing on evidence and social policy earlier this week. His subcommittee is also likely to be the starting point for any evidence-based bills that move in the House in this session.

We asked him about his recently-introduced Social Impact Partnership Act, as well as the Republican vision for evidence and innovation in social policy more generally.

Thank you for joining us Congressman Young. Let’s start our discussion with a bill you cosponsored this year with Congressman John Delaney (D-MD) called the Social Impact Partnership Act (H.R. 1336). Our readers are fairly familiar with its broad outlines. Can you tell us what motivated you personally to introduce this bill?

Congressman Young: Before I served in Congress, I was on the board of an organization that worked with homeless veterans, and as an attorney I provided pro bono legal services to couples looking to adopt. These are some of the seemingly intractable issues we grapple with as a country, and never seem to make enough of an impact.

I was excited to become a member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources because they work directly with these challenging problems. Early on, we became aware of some phenomenal reforms they had been making in the United Kingdom that were showing some promise. One of them was the social impact bond financing mechanism, which I quickly realized could have broad application here in the states. As I began talking with the UK government, I learned most of their interventions were adopted from U.S.-based civil society, which gave me more confidence in their applicability here.

It took our team about a year to work through all the issues of adapting it from their parliamentary system of government and coming up with something that would work in our presidential system. Also, it’s worth noting that we sunset the bill after ten years; if the whole point is to evaluate policies to see what works, I think that same standard ought to be applied to the underlying bill.

Your bill appears to be part of a broader, bipartisan effort to increase performance and results in government. Last year, your Republican colleague, Rep. Paul Ryan, reached out to a prominent Democrat on the Senate side, Sen. Patty Murray, to introduce legislation that would create a new federal evidence commission. The two are expected to introduce similar legislation this year. What can you tell us about the commission?  Why is it needed?

Congressman Young: When the federal government wants to experiment with social policy, we primarily do so through either pilot programs or by granting waivers to states. So when I got onto the Human Resources Subcommittee two years ago, the first thing I wanted to do was look at all the pilot programs and waiver programs that have been launched in the social space over the past few decades to see what has worked and what hasn’t.

We quickly learned, though, that a) most of these programs don’t have any sort of evaluative requirement; b) when there is an evaluative requirement, there often isn’t a requirement to make the results public; and c) when the results are made public, you’ve got to go to each agency and get through particular process for obtaining them. The effort ended up not being instructive in terms of what works, but it was instructive in terms of institutional challenges we face in trying to improve the system.

It occurred to me then that it would be nice to have a sort of central clearinghouse for such experimentation —easily accessible online and across all federal agencies — where anyone could find all these results. We actually included such a provision within our Social Impact Partnership legislation that would track all programs funded in this way. I was very encouraged, then, when Chairman Ryan and Senator Murray introduced a broader bill at the end of last Congress. Their bill would establish a commission to determine whether it’s feasible and worthwhile to create a broader sort of repository.

This isn’t important just as a matter of transparency, or because it helps members of Congress make better decisions. This is important because it helps inform think tanks and academics and the individual states as they work through ways to attack some big issues. As we’ve talked to state officials around the country, we’ve asked them how they come up with new ideas or share best practices with other states. What we constantly hear is that most of it comes from word of mouth at annual conferences.

The problem with that is two-fold: First, we end up relying too much on anecdotal evidence; and second, in the absence of easily accessible rigorous evaluation, there is no way to tell what parts of a program are actually moving the needle, or which parts might need to be adjusted when implemented in a new state. The biggest problems with replication tend to be problems of implementation, not necessarily with the original initiative. Having a repository of data would help ensure the sort of model fidelity that’s often missing from such efforts.

  The evidence commission came up several times during a recent House hearing on evidence and social policy. Some at the hearing suggested that perhaps it should be turned into a standing body that would advise Congress on an ongoing basis about which programs are working and which ones aren’t. Do you think that might happen?

Congressman Young: I think a central clearinghouse to gather and make available the evidence is the most important aspect of a bill. At this point, I’m not sure if it would be necessary to have the commission continue as a standing body if they were able to develop the clearinghouse. I’d rather let the process they’ve outlined run its course, and then Congress could determine if it’s appropriate to have the commission continue. That’s the whole philosophy driving evidence-based policy approaches: Don’t commit to funding something on such a broad scale until you know it works.

Last year, Congressman Ryan released a discussion draft that some say was the starting point for what may become “Welfare Reform 2.0” in this session of Congress.  Do you think that will happen?  How will, or should, the principles in your bill and the ideas in Rep. Ryan’s discussion draft be integrated into these much larger social programs?

Congressman Young:  I certainly hope so. I know it’s important to Chairman Ryan and something Senate Finance Chairman Hatch is interested in (he’s introducing the Social Impact Partnership Act in the Senate), so I think we’ll see something.

Coming out of a recession, so much of the focus of Washington is on the economy, and rightly so. We know that in a healthy economy businesses need access to capital, and so we’re debating things like tax reform. We know that in a healthy economy businesses need access to markets, and so we’re debating things like trade agreements. We know that in a healthy economy businesses need access to labor, but yet we miss the fact our labor force participation rate is the lowest it’s been in nearly four decades. If the recovery seems stagnant at times, it’s precisely because we aren’t looking at how to reform our social safety net to ensure more people are moving back to work.

We have a lot of important deadlines we have to meet in the next few months—SGR, the Highway Trust Fund, the debt ceiling—and so we may not see action right away. But we can’t forget there is an economic cost to not addressing the inefficiencies of our social programs, and this is going to be an issue I’m banging the drum on throughout this Congress.

Let’s turn to politics. Most of the issues we have discussed so far are notable for their bipartisanship. Your Social Impact Partnership bill has drawn sponsors from both parties and the Ryan-Murray evidence commission is also bipartisan. But we seem to be living in a period of more, not less, partisanship. What makes these issues different? Where are the areas of common ground?

Congressman Young: At a time when our politics is so polarized and neither party has 60 votes in the Senate, it makes it more imperative that legislation—especially bold legislation—must be bipartisan from the start. That’s why we’ve ensured our bill remains bipartisan, and I’d venture to say why the Ryan-Murray bill is bipartisan.

Sometimes it’s easy to be partisan in a nitpicky sort of way, but often there are legitimate differences in core philosophy that make bipartisanship seem nearly impossible. Sometimes it can seem like legislation that seeks to reform our social safety net programs can get caught up in this because the arguments revolve around funding levels. Both sides allow money to serve as a proxy for moral responsibility, whether that’s the responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars wisely, or the responsibility to help support our fellow Americans in dire straits.

What makes these bills different, though, is that they start by focusing on the outcomes of these programs, not the input. When you shift the focus to results and only funding what works, you necessarily help more people while being good fiscal stewards. Both sides can claim victory without ever having to compromise their core beliefs or violating their chief moral duties. That’s what helps attract the bipartisan support that’s necessary to enact better laws.

You are, of course, a Republican. Even on bipartisan issues such as these, there are still differences between the parties. Can you talk a bit about how these issues fit within a larger, Republican vision of government?

Congressman Young: There’s a mischaracterization that Republicans want to remove the government from every sector possible. Our real vision is that we want to limit the government’s involvement while maintaining effectiveness, not to eliminate it completely. We realize the need for a safety net that supports those who have fallen on tough times and find themselves out of work.

Most of those people want to get back to work—they want to earn their own success—but through no fault of their own sometimes find the safety net has become a cage. Whether that’s because they haven’t got adequate job training, or because the next dollar they earn will be eaten up by a similar amount of lost benefits, the system has failed them. Ensuring they are ready and able to get back to work quickly realizes that vision of limited, but effective, government by also ensuring they aren’t languishing on government assistance.

Another facet of this is the faith Republicans tend to place in the individual, rather than the government. By making sure our social programs are helping get people back to work, we’re viewing them as assets to be realized and not liabilities to be written off. It recognizes their basic dignity as a human being, even if it does require a bit of help from the government to get back up on their feet.

There has been a lot of discussion of income inequality on the campaign trail this year. Do you think issues of evidence and results might be taken up by the presidential candidates?  What might a future Republican president do on these issues?

Congressman Young: Data helps us identify problems as much as it does solutions. The reason I think you’ve seen more candidates discussing income inequality—especially Republican candidates—is that the evidence shows us it is a growing problem. But the evidence also shows us our current programs aren’t doing much, if anything, to solve it. Since the 1990’s only ten of our social programs have been scientifically evaluated, and nine of those ten evaluations showed little to no impact.

The American people feel the effects of income inequality. If you ignore the problem, like many on both sides have done to some degree over the years, you hurt your credibility in proposing solutions for our social programs whether you use data or not. This is a virtually untapped issue area that could make a Republican stand out if they chose to embrace it. Because of that, and because of the bipartisanship that we discussed can exist on these issues, the possibilities for a Republican president to enact meaningful reform on this front are limitless.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Congressman Young: When we talk about evidenced-based policy, or say things like “funding what works,” our terminology can obscure the importance of failed experiments. Too often, government officials are there to cut the ribbon or issue a press release when things go well, but we want to avoid talking about bad, unanticipated results. We should never settle for failure, but by sweeping bad news under the rug I’d argue that we already are.

To the extent it adds to the evidence base and helps us iteratively improve our approach, I don’t think we should ever find shame in saying we came up short. Sometimes there is as much value in failure as there is in success: Thomas Edison explored over three thousand different theories, and then thousands of different filaments, before his vision for the light bulb ever became a reality.

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