Paul Ryan discusses evidence-based policymaking
Tom Naatz | Monday, September 16, 2019
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan spoke at a moderated discussion hosted by the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy about evidence-based policymaking in a Friday lecture at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The Wisconsin Republican, who was speaker from 2015 to 2018 and will serve as a guest lecturer at Notre Dame for the 2019-2020 academic year, argued that a more robust means of collecting data could improve the efficiency and efficacy of Federal programs.
“In lay terms, it means what it sounds like. We now, in this day and age of data and analytics, have the capability of actually studying programs — whether government or non-government programs — to measure their effectiveness,” Ryan said. “Evidence-based policy basically means looking at the evidence of whether or not you are achieving an intended goal, or not. Track that evidence, and then change the conduct of your program … in order to, based on evidence, facts, data and figures, achieve your goal.”
Ryan said his interest in this subject was piqued in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, in which he served as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate. He said his travels across America—coupled with his previous work for former Congressman Jack Kemp — left him with a sense that the Republican Party needed “fresh” ideas about fighting poverty. He said data about Federal anti-poverty programs was difficult to come by and decided to change that reality in a bipartisan manner.
“I went to a buddy of mine — I wanted to make this bipartisan — a [Democratic] senator from Washington state, Patty Murray,” he said. “She and I had just done a big budget deal the year before…and I asked her to do this commission with me, because this should be bipartisan.
“This has nothing to do with right or left, liberal or conservative, but just with what works, what’s data, what’s evidence, how to actually prove outcomes and things like that. We proceeded to put together this wonderful commission. We took the results from the commission … and put it into a bill. We passed that bill into law in December.”
Discussing why statistical data about Federal programs was so hard to access, Ryan said bureaucracy and the status quo were the primary obstacles in making the data available to policymakers.
“It’s a classic ‘twentieth century bureaucracy wasn’t ready for the twenty first century,’” Ryan said. “Science and data analytics have moved so far, and government is way behind the times. In 2013, I conducted a study in the Budget Committee. I wanted to understand all the Federal government does in the area of fighting poverty.
“I thought it was a pretty simple question to ask. No one knew the answer to this question. … It took us a year, an entire committee. We found out that there were about 92 Federal programs that qualify as poverty fighting programs, spending a little over $800 billion a year. About 1% of them — 1% — we measured whether they were effective or not. That gave me the impetus to say, ‘We have got to get the federal government up to speed here.’”
Furthermore, Ryan said since the launch of the federal government’s so-called “war on poverty” 50 years ago, few people had been interested in measuring the programs in terms of their success of lifting people out of poverty.
“Our onus, our mantra was — and Patty would agree with me on this — rather than measuring success in the war on poverty … based on effort, or input — how many programs do we have, how much money are we spending on them, how many people are on the programs — how about we do this novel thing and measure success in the War on Poverty based on outcomes? On results? Are we actually getting people out of poverty? Is it working?” Ryan said. “Because what had happened over this fifty-year period is the poverty rates basically stayed the same.”
Regarding examples of evidence-based policymaking’s success, Ryan cited a prenatal motherhood support program aimed at helping expectant and new mothers living in poverty care for their children by sending nurses into these women’s homes and teaching them how to care for children.
“It’s a program we call MICV — Mother and Infant Children Visitation program — and George Bush created this as president as a pilot project,” Ryan said. “Barack Obama put in permanent law in the Affordable Care Act. Under my speakership, we made it permanent and reauthorized it, and Donald Trump signed it into law.
“Here is a Bush-created program that Obama took from a pilot and made it an authorized program and then Trump expanded it. Why is that? … We used great data to figure out that it was extremely effective. The data told a story, the effectiveness told a story, and it was bipartisan.”
Using data to determine a program’s effectiveness can take some of the partisan rancor out of debates regarding a program’s utility, Ryan said.
“You can get rid of ideological fights, you can get rid of partisan fights, you can get rid of funding fights when you have unassailable evidence to be able to make the case and achieve a social good,” Ryan said. “Those few pockets of success stories is what we were able to point to and say ‘Why don’t we do this with the rest of the Federal government?’”
At the conclusion of the moderated discussion, Ryan took questions from students. The questions covered a range of topics, including health care and the United States’ polarized political culture.
Senior Sheila Gregory, co-president of College Democrats, challenged Ryan over his role in attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Gregory said Ryan had not lived up to his own self-set standards when it came to the use of evidence in policymaking.
“In 2009, you said that, ‘I don’t think we should pass bills that we haven’t read and that we don’t know what they cost,’” Gregory said. “Yet the American Health Care Act of 2017, which passed the House while you were speaker, was called to a vote before the Congressional Budget Office could analyze its costs and effects. Furthermore, many representatives from your party admitted to not having read the full bill. Why did you change your mind when it came to the passage of your own health care legislation, and when is it ever appropriate to pass major legislation without a CBO score?”
Ryan responded that his handling of the bill was consistent with the standards he had laid out.
“I didn’t change my mind, did read the bill, did know the bill, helped write the bill and had continuous scores from the CBO all along. We had been scoring the same policy as CBO for months,” he said. “Their final score came out the same way as their preliminary score, based on their last preliminary score. We knew where we were with CBO all along.
We would call CBO and they would tell us, ‘We just can’t give you an official letter yet, but here’s what it is.’ So we knew what the cost effects were, and we knew exactly what was in the bill.”
At the close of Ryan’s answer, Gregory criticized the effects of the bill that Ryan had just referenced.
“And the effects were 23 million people who would be uninsured, thank you so much,” Gregory said as she left the microphone.
In response, Ryan asked Gregory if she was a member of the College Democrats.
“Head of the College Democrats, right?” Ryan asked Gregory as she walked away. “This ain’t my first rodeo.”
Brigid Harrington, a sophomore, asked the former speaker about the best approach of reaching the country’s political center.
“In an age of heightened partisanship, what are some of the challenges you have faced as speaker in being responsive to the ideological center of the nation?” Harrington asked.
Ryan said that whereas in the past success in national politics was dependent on policymaking prowess, success is now largely measured through entertainment value.
“You can leapfrog this meritocracy immediately, become famous fast and then you’ll a brand to maintain,” he said. “What this has done is it has given rise to what I call the ‘entertainment wings’ of our parties. The Democrats have an entertainment wing of their party, the Republicans have an entertainment wing of our party. You can scale the heights of the entertainment wing of the party without really paying your dues, proving your worth and being a good policymaker.
“Because being a good policymaker ultimately means getting consensus. Getting consensus ultimately means compromise. If you’re going to compromise … you won’t be pure, you won’t be perfect, you won’t have a good brand that you’ll be able to maintain. What this has done is ripped us into poles. It has made primary politics really where the action is. …To your question, you have to convince members of Congress this is the right thing to do, even if it’s bad for [their] election.”