The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act: An Opportunity for Improved Regulatory Assessment?

April 06, 2016

Dr. Andrew Reamer

On March 30, President Obama signed into law the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-140). The law establishes a 15-member commission to “conduct a comprehensive study of the data inventory, data infrastructure, database security, and statistical protocols related to Federal policymaking and the agencies responsible for maintaining that data...” (Emphasis added)

The law directs the commission study to focus on four topics:

  • Evaluation and research: “the optimal arrangement for which administrative data on Federal programs and tax expenditures, survey data, and related statistical data series may be integrated and made available to facilitate program evaluation, continuous improvement, policy-relevant research, and cost-benefit analyses by qualified researchers and institutions.”
  • Program design: “how best to incorporate outcomes measurement, institutionalize randomized controlled trials, and rigorous impact analysis into program design.”
  • Methods: “how data infrastructure, database security, and statistical protocols should be modified.”
  • Data clearinghouse: “whether a clearinghouse for program and survey data should be established and how to create such a clearinghouse” as well as determining the appropriate administrative and survey data content, approaches to linking records, business model, participation protocols, access protocols, and confidentiality protections.

Of the 15 commission members, three each are appointed by the President, the Speaker of the House, the House minority leader, the Senate majority leader, and the Senate minority leader. The President appoints the chair and the Speaker the co-chair. Nine members “shall be academic researchers, data experts, or have experience in administering programs” and five “shall be an expert in protecting personally identifiable information and data minimization.” Appointments are to be made by May 14, 2016. The commission’s report is due 15 months after the date a majority of the members of the commission are appointed, that is, July-August 2017. The law directs that the commission be located at, and administered by, the U.S. Census Bureau. Funding for the commission is set at $3 million, to be obtained through contributions of appropriated funds from the principal federal statistical agencies.

P.L. 114-140 is a model of bipartisan cooperation. In April 2015, companion bills were introduced into the House by Republican Paul Ryan (H.R. 1831) and into the Senate by Democrat Patty Murray (S. 991). The bills cleared their respective committees by voice vote. The House approved its version by voice vote in July 2015. Two weeks ago, the Senate passed its version by unanimous consent. The bill was returned to the House for quick approval and then sent on to the President.

The genesis of the bill was a recommendation in a July 2014 report of the House Budget Committee, then chaired by Paul Ryan, “Expanding Opportunity in America.” In particular, Mr. Ryan wanted to see the creation of a Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making that would examine “whether and how to create a Clearinghouse for Program and Survey data” to enable improved measurement of the outcomes of government anti-poverty programs.            

The bills introduced in 2015 broadened the focus beyond any one particular policy realm to include “program evaluation, continuous improvement, policy-relevant research, and cost-benefit analyses.”

In anticipation and support of the passage of H.R. 1831, the Obama Administration proposed, and Congress approved, a $10 million FY2016 budget initiative to construct an “Administrative Records Clearinghouse for the Evaluation of Federal and Federally-Sponsored Programs.” The appropriated funds are being administered by the Census Bureau’s Center for Administrative Records Research and Application (CARRA) to “(1) Accelerate the acquisition and processing of federal and federally-sponsored program data, (2) Expand and improve infrastructure for processing and linking data, (3) Enhance infrastructure for the provision of data, and (4) Administer a Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.”

The passage of P.L. 114-140 and the Census budget initiative, clearly, are a positive development. While the law’s title says “evidence-based policymaking,” its emphasis clearly is on program assessment. Nevertheless, I believe the scope of the commission’s work, and the use of a data clearinghouse, can be expanded to systematically include the assessment of the impacts of implemented and proposed regulations. Those interested in improved regulatory outcomes should consider how a data clearinghouse might be used for regulatory analysis and communicate their views and ideas to the commission staff once they are in place.

Dr. Andrew Reamer is Research Professor at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy at the George Washington University.