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“In Politics, Does Evidence Matter?”: We’ll Be Having A Lot Of Disagreements Over The Next Few Years

One of the lovely formulations in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address expressed his hope that “a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion.” Kennedy was talking about the Cold War, but we could use a little of this in the partisan and ideological warfare that engulfs our nation’s capital.

And so let us pause at the beachhead established after the midterm elections by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). They have co-sponsored a bill that’s unlikely to get a lot of attention but deserves some — not because it will revolutionize politics but because it could, and should, encourage both sides to begin their arguments by asking the right questions.

The Murray-Ryan bill would create a 15-member commission to study, as they put it in a joint announcement, “how best to expand the use of data to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs and tax expenditures.” The commission would also look into “how best to protect the privacy rights of people who interact with federal agencies and ensure confidentiality.”

Before you sigh, dismiss this as “just another commission,” and turn or click elsewhere, consider what Murray and Ryan are trying to do. Whatever your views, they’re saying, you should want government programs to achieve what they set out to do. And in this age of Big Data, there are more metrics than ever to allow you to have a clear sense of how well they are working.

Also, credit Murray and Ryan for this: They are looking not only at whether programs live up to their billing but also at whether the various tax breaks Congress has enacted — they are worth about $1 trillion a year — bring about the results their sponsors claim they will. If we are ever to reform the tax system, it would be useful to know which deductions, exemptions and credits are worth keeping.

The bipartisan duo — they worked together amicably on budget issues despite large disagreements — is not asking the commission to invent something out of whole cloth. On the contrary, evidence-based social policy is a hot idea at the moment.

Ron Haskins, my Brookings Institution colleague, has just co-authored a new book with Greg Margolis, Show Me the Evidence. It’s about what Haskins sees as the “terrific work” of the Obama administration in subjecting some 700 programs to careful testing based on the idea, “if you want the money, show me the evidence.”

Haskins, by the way, is a Republican with whom I’ve engaged in a long-standing (though friendly) argument over welfare reform. His interest here is not partisan but in having both sides pay more attention to what it takes to create “high-quality programs.”

“In politics, evidence is typically used as a weapon — mangled and used selectively in order to claim that it supports a politician’s predetermined position,” Haskins and Margolis write. “That is policy-based evidence, not evidence-based policy.”

The Haskins-Margolis effort comes in the wake of Moneyball for Government a book whose title is a play on Billy Beane’s approach to baseball. Edited by Jim Nussle and Peter Orszag, a pair of former budget directors of opposing parties, the book is part of a campaign by the group “Results for America” that is also looking to evaluate programs by their results. The basic idea is that government is better off focusing on “on outcomes and lives changed, rather than simply compliance and numbers served.”

No one, of course, should pretend that by marinating ourselves in data, we’ll render our philosophical and partisan differences obsolete. The major divide over how much government should do and which problems it should take on will persist. So will disagreements over the extent to which government should push back against rising inequality and the degree of regulation a capitalist economy requires.

But conservatives who care about more than just scoring points against government inefficiencies (both real and invented) should want taxpayer money spent in a sensible way. And progressives have more of an interest than anyone in proving that government can work effectively to solve the problems it sets out to deal with. It’s on those two propositions that Murray and Ryan have found common ground.

Argument is at the heart of democracy, so we shouldn’t fear that we’ll be having a lot of disagreements over the next few years. But dumb arguments are not good for anyone. Insisting that politicians base their claims on facts and evidence ought to be the least we expect of them.


By: E.J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; The National Memo, December 8, 2014

December 9, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Politics, Progressives | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Calling The Republican’s Bluff”: Who Cares About The Value Of Work?

Finding a way out of our current political impasse requires some agreement on what problems we need to solve. If anything should unite left, center and right, it is the value of work and the idea, in Bill Clinton’s signature phrase, that those who “work hard and play by the rules” ought to be rewarded for their efforts.

This is why one of last week’s most important and least noted political events was the introduction of the 21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray favors a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, but she also has other ideas that would help Americans at the bottom of the income structure to earn more.

Let’s start with principles, and then move to specifics.

There’s a new vogue among conservatives: to talk less about entrepreneurs and to stop talking altogether about “makers” and “takers.” Instead, many of the wisest heads on the right are urging a focus on work. The new emphasis reflects a realization that President Obama won in 2012 in large part because Mitt Romney and his party failed to convey empathy for those who live on wages and salaries.

An early champion of this view was Ramesh Ponnuru, a writer for National Review. “The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations,” he wrote shortly after the election. It is, Ponnuru added, “an important story with which most people do not identify.”

Writing earlier this year in National Affairs magazine, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center was more biting. “Modern conservatives,” he argued, “have tended to discount the moral value of the average person, focusing instead on extolling the moral superiority of the great.”

Two other conservative thinkers, Reihan Salam and Rich Lowry, say the antidote is for Republicans to become “the party of work.” As they see it, work “stands for a constellation of values and, like education, is universally honored.” The GOP, they said, “should extol work and demand it.”

Yes, that last phrase — “demand it” — could lead to a darker kind of politics involving the demonization of those who simply can’t find jobs. Thus did Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., get into trouble for mourning “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.”

No matter what Ryan was trying to say, he seemed to be emphasizing the flaws of the unemployed themselves rather than the cost of economic injustice. My Post colleague Eugene Robinson captured this well: “Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of ‘culture’ is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem.”

Nonetheless, many conservatives really do realize that they need to embrace hardworking Americans. But the question stands: What are they willing to do about it?

This is where Murray comes in. Her bill would rid the tax code of certain disincentives to work. She notes that “the second earner in a household often pays a higher tax rate on his or her earnings than the first.” Her plan would right this by offering a 20 percent deduction on the second earner’s income up to roughly $60,000 a year. (The benefit is focused on lower-income families, so it phases out at about $130,000 in joint annual income.) For a $25,000-a-year second earner in the 25 percent bracket, she says, this would mean $1,250 “back in their pocket for groceries, child care or retirement savings.”

She’d also expand the earned-income tax credit for workers without children and lower the eligibility age from 25 to 21. The changes would increase their maximum benefit from $487 to about $1,400 a year. It’s hardly nirvana. But it’s real money, especially for someone earning around $15,000 a year. The proposal would cover its roughly $15 billion annual cost by closing loopholes already identified as worthy of being scrapped by the GOP’s leading tax reformer, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.

You can, of course, look at what Murray is doing as a way of calling the conservatives’ bluff on the matter of work. But that will be true only if the right allows its bluff to be called.

In making their case, Salam and Lowry quoted Abraham Lincoln on the need “to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man.” If conservatives are serious about this (and about the honest, laboring woman, too) they’ll join Murray in raising the minimum wage and in seeking a tax code more in harmony with the dignity of work.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 30, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Minimum Wage, Unemployed | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Blowing Away The Smoke”: A Democrat-Sponsored Tax Cut Calls The GOP’s Anti-Poverty Bluff

For months now, as congressional Republicans have blocked repeated attempts to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, as they’ve fought to deny low-income Americans access to health insurance, as they’ve advocated to cut tens of billions from the food stamp program, as they’ve resisted proposals to raise the minimum wage, they have simultaneously professed their commitment to American workers and the poor.

Senator Patty Murray put forth a new test of that commitment on Wednesday, by introducing legislation to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is already one of the largest and most effective anti-poverty programs, rewarding low-wage earners for their work and lightening their tax burden. It’s also one of the very few specific anti-poverty policies Republicans have praised in recent months.

Murray’s bill, the “21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act,” would increase the maximum credit for childless adults and create a new tax deduction for families with two working parents. It’s intended to complement the Democrats’ campaign for a higher minimum wage, and to force Republicans to take a real stand on help for American workers. Given their recent nods towards the EITC, one might reasonably expect Republicans to consider Murray’s proposal seriously. (President Obama also proposed an EITC expansion in his budget for 2015.) Even the tax loopholes Murray proposes closing in order to pay for the expansion have already been singled out for elimination by the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Robert Camp. But these are not reasonable times.

The Republican’s recent expressions of support for expanding the EITC have always seemed more opportunistic than sincere. Rather than actively working to extend the credit to more Americans, the GOP instead uses the EITC as “a protective shield against populist attacks,” as Jonathan Chait put it; specifically, as a counterpoint to calls from the left to raise the minimum wage.

“The minimum wage makes it more expensive for employers to hire low-skilled workers, but the EITC, on the other hand, gives workers a boost—without hurting their prospects,” Representative Paul Ryan said of the EITC in a January speech at the Brookings Institution. “It gives families flexibility—it helps them take ownership of their lives.”

Conservative pundits and academics have taken a similar line. Two economists at the American Enterprise Institute argued last year that “expanding the earned income tax credit is a much more efficient way to fight poverty than increasing the minimum wage.” Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation argued in favor of a higher EITC in January, as did former Bush advisor Glenn Hubbard. Another former Bush advisor, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, wrote recently that the EITC was “distinctly better” than raising the minimum wage because the costs are born by taxpayers rather than employers.

In his own much-hyped poverty speech in January, Senator Marco Rubio advocated for replacing the EITC with a “federal wage enhancement” subsidy. The vague contours of the alternative he proposed suggested that what he had in mind was nearly identical to the EITC, but with more support for people without kids.

Rubio was right to point out that one of the major shortcomings of the current EITC is that it offers minimal assistance to childless workers. As the program operates now, people without children who are under 25 are ineligible, and the maximum credit for those between 25 and 64 is $487. Families with children receive more substantial benefits. In 2011, their average credit was $2,905.

Murray’s bill addresses Rubio’s professed concern for childless workers by lowering the eligibility age to 21 and raising the maximum credit for childless workers to about $1,400. Those changes would benefit thirteen million people, according to a Treasury Department estimate. The legislation also increases support for families with two working parents by allowing a secondary earner to deduct twenty percent of their income from their federal taxes. This could offset childcare, transportation, and other costs associated with entering the workforce, thus encouraging more stay-at-home parents to find jobs. More than seven million families would benefit from this new deduction, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

The bill also doubles the penalties for tax payers who fail to comply with the Internal Revenue Service’s “due diligence” requirement, a reform that addresses Republican concerns about the costs of improper claims.

If Republicans really wanted to use the EITC as a vehicle for boosting low wages, this legislation provides an excellent starting point for negotiation. But they’re unlikely to engage with it seriously, because their lauding of the EITC was never serious to begin with. For example, Rubio’s proposal to expand the credit for childless workers would have been accomplished by taking money away from workers with kids, instead of by increasing the size of the program overall.

Republicans will face a tricky situation if Harry Reid brings Murray’s bill up for a vote in the Senate. “If Republicans aren’t interested in supporting this bill, they’ll need to explain why they are rejecting the alternative that they have often pointed to in order to justify opposing raising the minimum wage,” a senior Democratic aide told The Nation.

If recent votes on unemployment insurance are any indication, Republicans are far more likely to risk hypocrisy and find reasons to kill the bill than do any real governing, even on policies they profess to support. If a vote doesn’t accomplish much for low-wage workers, it may at least blow away some of the smoke from the GOP’s show.


By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, March 26, 2014

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Earned Income Tax Credit, GOP, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“They Never Really Cared In The First Place”: Why Republicans Don’t Want To Acknowledge The Falling Deficit

An important budget memo was issued this week celebrating just how far the deficit had fallen over the last five years. But in one of the incongruities that define the political moment, the memo was issued by a Democrat, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Budget Committee, not a Republican.

The steep decline of the deficit is not something Republicans really want to talk about, even though their austerity policies were largely responsible for it. If the public really understood how much the deficit has fallen, it would undermine the party’s excuse for opposing every single spending program, exposing the “cost to future generations” as a hyped-up hoax. In fact, it would lead to exactly the conclusion that Ms. Murray reached in her memo to Senate Democrats: that the country can now afford to spend money to boost employment, stay competitive with the rest of the globe in education and research, and finally deal with the long-deferred repairs to public works.

In 2009, the deficit was more than $1.4 trillion, which was nearly 10 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. This year, the deficit will be a little more than a third that size: $520 billion, or 3 percent of G.D.P. The Treasury Department said on Thursday that the deficit fell more sharply in the last fiscal year than in any year since the end of World War II.

Some of the deficit reduction — about 23 percent — is due to tax revenue increases, mostly from the deal to raise income tax rates to Clinton-era levels on households making $450,000 or more. And some is due to lower interest costs, and the slowing growth of health care costs, which is partly attributable to the health care reform law.

But about half of the reduction, the biggest part, is the result of $1.6 trillion in cuts over several years to discretionary spending demanded by Republicans in several rounds of budget negotiations. As a recent Times editorial noted, this has become the tragedy of the Obama administration, undoing the positive effects of the 2009 stimulus, keeping the economic recovery sluggish, and hurting millions of vulnerable people who depended on that spending for shelter, food and education.

Having prevailed over all of those liberal programs, why can’t Republicans acknowledge that the deficit has been vanquished? Just yesterday, they blocked a bill to provide expanded medical and education benefits for veterans, citing the looming deficit. “This bill would spend more than we agreed to spend,” said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. “The ink is hardly dry and here we have another bill to raise that spending again.”

The answer, of course, is that Republicans never really cared about the deficit, having raised it to enormous proportions during the administration of George W. Bush. Their real goals were to stop government spending at any cost, and to deny President Obama even a hint of political victory or economic success.

And so Republicans will resist any attempt to use their budget triumphs for Democratic purposes. As Ms. Murray writes, that will create different kinds of deficits: a deficit of people working, of students studying, of roads and bridges and research projects that can lead to prosperity instead of the gloom of austerity.

By: David Firestone, Editor’s Blog, The New York Times, February 28, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Deficits, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Treading Carefully”: Paul Ryan’s Big, Tricky Budget Moment Is Here

Congress has been historically inactive this year. But with the clock winding down on 2013, there is still a glimmer of hope that bicameral negotiations could produce a modest budget deal that would replace some of the sequester cuts.

For Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House GOP budget guru and potential presidential aspirant, that presents both an opportunity and a challenge. A bipartisan deal could serve as a rare (for him) legislative achievement that pads his credentials and charts the GOP’s course heading into the next election cycle. Yet at the same time, Ryan would risk spurning the GOP base — and its vocal Ted Cruz types — if he’s perceived as bending too far to Democratic demands.

Ryan and his Senate counterpart Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are believed to be close to a very small deal that would eliminate some of the automatic budget cuts scheduled to go into effect over the next two years. Though nothing is finalized, the deal would reportedly nix about one-third of the sequester-mandated cuts, splitting the reinstated funds between defense and non-defense spending.

Since Republicans won’t go for tax increases, and Democrats won’t tackle entitlement reform without also touching revenue, Murray and Ryan have been reduced to “pulling together odds and ends to make a deal, including non-tax revenue like auctioning broadband spectrum and airport security fees, as well as increasing employee contributions to federal workers’ retirement programs,” wrote MSNBC’s Suzy Khimm.

In short: The negotiators are looking at a tiny deal, far less than the sweeping budget overhaul Ryan has famously proposed before in his spending blueprints.

Still, a deal would be a success for a Congress so dysfunctional it triggered a two-week government shutdown and flirted with debt default. Republicans would love to roll back some of the cuts to defense spending. And Democrats are eager for a deal that would wipe out some of the cuts to cherished domestic programs like Head Start.

Such a deal, if passed, would also be a significant accomplishment for Ryan to add to his otherwise unimpressive legislative record.

Though a noted policy wonk, none of Ryan’s radical budget bills have gone anywhere in Congress. In fact, only two Ryan-drafted bills, neither of which were anything truly groundbreaking, have become law in the congressman’s entire House career. One bill named a post office; the other amended a tax on arrows.

A deal would thus “burnish an image of someone willing to find — and tout — common ground in a historically divided Washington,” wrote Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan. “It’s a credential that could serve him well as he looks to grab the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee or run for his party’s nomination before the 2016 presidential contest.”

Still, an agreement almost assuredly wouldn’t do anything about long-term GOP priorities Ryan has championed before, like cutting entitlement spending.

And there’s the rub for Ryan: A small deal could turn off both conservative lawmakers and voters.

Conservative House members dug in on their impossible demands during the shutdown even as it obliterated the party’s approval rating. Those same members could balk at a proposed deal that doesn’t cut deeper. And though a deal could still pass with the help of Democratic votes, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would risk further splitting his fragile caucus by cobbling together a Democratic-heavy coalition.

A mini-deal could also be problematic for Ryan’s perceived presidential ambitions if it causes the party’s right flank, which plays a disproportionately large role in the primary nominating process, to sour on him.

“If the Tea Party turns up the rhetorical heat, would Ryan risk a presidential bid to rescue the country from another government shutdown?” wrote Salon’s Joan Walsh. “I’ve never seen him stand up to that kind of ideological pressure from the right, but there could be a first time.”

If he’s keen on keeping his conservative hero status and pursuing a 2016 run, Ryan really ought to tread carefully.


By: John Terbush, The Week, December 4, 2013

December 5, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Paul Ryan | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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