What Congress Can Do to Stop Playing Politics and Start Investing in What Works

While recent Congresses have been anything but popular, they have at least been noteworthy – or maybe I should say notorious. The 112th & 113th Congresses hold the distinction of being the least productive and second-least productive Congresses in modern history (at least the last forty years), respectively, in terms of bills passed.

While the 114th Congress has seen a slight uptick in productivity, it has still been defined by the same ideological bickering and brinkmanship that has characterized the past decade.

Countless pages have been spent discussing ways to fix Congress and bring back the days when “bipartisan” and “compromise” were seen as positives rather than political insults.

What if instead of using ideology to decide where to invest federal funding, Democrats and Republicans came together to drive federal dollars towards programs with evidence of success? It almost sounds too good to be true. Yet, there are opportunities for Congress to invest in evidence-based policymaking right now.

Evidence-based policy is public policy informed by rigorously tested, objective evidence, often established by the use of scientifically rigorous studies, like randomized controlled trials.

Last week, rather than reaching a compromise on how to fund the federal government for the next fiscal year, Congress kicked the can down the road to another deadline in December. When Congress reopens the budget debate, they should make it a priority to promote the use of evidence in addressing the nation’s most pressing social issues.

These programs include initiatives like Social Innovation Fund (SIF), which offers grants to intermediaries with proven track records of identifying scalable high-performing nonprofits to then invest the money in local organizations to conduct evidence-based social policy interventions; and the Investing in Innovation (i3) program that supports innovative K-12 interventions with evidence of success or promising potential using a tired-evidence approach to direct larger funds to projects with stronger evidence bases but also supports projects that show promise and are willing to undergo independent, rigorous evaluations.

The Senate and House appropriations subcommittees recommended defunding both SIF and i3 in the next budget reauthorization but Congress now has a second chance to get it right and invest in evidence.

The budget process is not the only opportunity for Congress to support evidence-based policymaking. The Social Impact Partnership Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House by Reps. Todd Young (R-IN) and John Delaney (D-MD), would seek to establish public-private partnerships to drive philanthropic and private-sector dollars to scale up proven social and public health interventions. In these partnerships, the federal government would only authorize funding after agreed upon outcomes are met and verified by independent evaluations. The same bill was introduced to the Senate by the bipartisan duo of Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Michael Bennett (D-CO).

In addition, the House recently passed the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015, which was introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The bill now heads to the Senate where Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) had already introduced the same legislation. The bill would establish a 15-member executive Commission with the purpose of determining ways that data on federally funded programs can be used and made available to facilitate program evaluations, continuous improvement, policy-relevant research, and cost-benefit analysis. The Commission would then make recommendations on how the data infrastructure in the country could be modified to incorporate outcomes measurements and rigorous evaluation into program designs, as well as how best to create a federal what works clearinghouse.

Supporting evidence-based policymaking is something both Democrats and Republicans support. Funding programs that have proven track records of success validates the Democratic ideals of an active role for the federal government in social policy. On the other hand, Republicans should be in support of shifting federal dollars away from programs that fail to achieve measurable outcomes, saving valuable government dollars and resources. Evidence-based policymaking is a way out of the bitter ideological politics of today.

For further reading on this topic, check out the work of organizations like Results for America and the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, who are working with federal, local, and state policymakers to spend taxpayer dollars smarter by investing in what works.