House Hearing on Evidence and Social Policy Influenced By Partisan Budget Divisions

A bipartisan congressional hearing devoted to increasing the use of evidence in social policy appeared to be influenced by partisanship elsewhere on Capitol Hill Tuesday, as congressional Republicans released a new budget proposal that drew immediate criticism from Democrats.

The House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany (R-LA) opened the hearing (video) by focusing on areas of agreement.

“Low income individuals and taxpayers alike deserve programs that are effective at promoting opportunity and helping people improve their lives,” he said. ”This is not about ideology or cutting spending. It’s about doing what’s right.”

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, began his remarks by welcoming the panel’s review of evidence-based policy, but he cautioned that evidence was too often overshadowed by ideology. “We aren’t lacking evidence, we are lacking political will to overcome ideology and act on the evidence,” he said.

He also warned against attempts to shift responsibility for social programs from the federal to the state level. “If you send federal funds to the state of Texas,” he said, “and you have no federal guidelines and no meaningful requirements that Texas use those dollars to accomplish the intended purpose, the state will simply use the funds to fill its budget gaps and provide corporate tax breaks.”

Witness Testimony

The hearing’s first witness was John Bridgeland, a former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush and senior advisor to Results for America, a bipartisan coalition that supports the increased use of evidence in federal programs.

In his testimony, Bridgeland made six recommendations that mirrored those he made last year with Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. They included:

  • Setting aside 1 percent of program funds for evaluation at each federal department and agency.
  • Creating comprehensive, easy-to-use “What Works” clearinghouses at each department and agency.
  • Encouraging the use of rapid, low-cost tools to determine impact, including promoting access to federal administrative data.
  • Investing limited tax dollars in what works, including through tiered evidence programs such as the i3 and Social Innovation Fund programs.
  • Directing funds away from programs that consistently fail to achieve outcomes, and
  • Promoting innovation and continuous learning, rather than using evaluation to justify premature funding cuts, citing the elimination of the Youth Opportunity Grants program as an example.

Bridgeland concluded his remarks by announcing that the Results for America coalition had endorsed an evidence commission that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) are expected to introduce in legislation later this year. He also announced that it endorsed social impact bond legislation recently introduced by Reps. Todd Young (R-IN) and John Delaney (D-MD).

The next witness was Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. Whitehurst supported Bridgeland’s proposals, but suggested that the Ryan-Murray evidence commission could be strengthened by making it a standing commission that issued annual reports to Congress about what works in federal social policy. He suggested that further improvements could be made to many social programs by converting them into vouchers that would empower recipients to shop for the best services.

The third witness was David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Muhlhausen recommended more large-scale, multi-site evaluations of federal programs, saying that the federal government has difficulty replicating successful local programs. He also endorsed the Ryan-Murray evidence commission.

The final witness was Joan Entmacher, Vice President for Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center. Entmacher said that many federal programs such as the EITC and SNAP (food stamps) have demonstrably reduced poverty, but have received too little investment and may be subject to spending cuts. Others, such as the home visiting program, are in danger of expiring. She also objected to the voucher proposal made by Whitehurst.

She suggested that Congress should fund increased spending on these programs by cutting tax expenditures, saying that a 1 percent reduction in such tax breaks would produce $15 billion in new revenue each year. “We have evidence of what works,” she said, “and the resources necessary to make the investments that will help families get ahead.”


Prompted by Entmacher’s remarks, chairman Boustany announced that he and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) had just introduced legislation (H.R. 1372) that would extend the home visiting program for another six months beyond its pending March 31 sunset date. He said the extension would give Congress more time to react to additional data coming from the program.

Boustany asked Whitehurst, who previously ran the What Works Clearinghouse at the U.S. Department of Education, what he had learned from the experience. Whitehurst said his first job was convincing people it was important. “There is this assumption that we know what works,” he said. “In fact, we knew nothing.” He joked that in its early days, it was sometimes referred to as the “Nothing Works Clearinghouse.”

He warned that other challenges still remain. He said such clearinghouses will inevitably face criticism from supporters of programs that do not meet evidence standards. To withstand the criticism, he said, they must devise sound rules for deciding what works. They must also make the evidence accessible so that policymakers and others will be able to use the information.

Finally, he suggested that the evidence that clearinghouses gather should eventually influence policy. He cautioned that federal agencies might be criticized if they did this, however, and that it might be a role better suited to the Ryan-Murray evidence commission.

Ranking member Doggett then returned to the day’s larger budget issues, saying that federal safety net programs have lifted millions out of poverty. “Is the goal to enhance, strengthen and improve?” he asked. “Or is to terminate, cancel, and cut?” He asked Entmacher whether she shared his concern and she agreed.

“This is not just a budget cutting exercise,” Boustany protested. “We have a moral imperative to make sure federal programs work.”

Rep. Todd Young (R-IN) later agreed during his remarks. “If I have compelling evidence that a program works, I am compelled to spend more money.”

The hearing was closed by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), who echoed Doggett’s earlier remarks. “If we are focused on what works we should be supporting, not weakening, these programs that do work.”

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