Show Us the Data, Congress

More of these, please.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The so-called Cromnibus monster that finally emerged from the back rooms of Congress last night prompted screams from liberals and conservatives alike, not to mention anyone with a passing interest in good government. It has something for everyone to dislike, which is the nature of bipartisan compromise. Left out of the final $1.1 trillion hash, however, was an exceedingly (almost embarrassingly) modest bipartisan proposal that could maybe -- just maybe -- make future budgets a bit more rational.

A Democrat and a Republican, Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have proposed legislation establishing an evidence-based policy commission. Wait: Isn’t Congress supposed to make policy based on evidence? Well, yes. But it doesn’t. (See Cromnibus, above.)

So Murray and Ryan, who lead their chambers’ budget committees, are trying to force the issue. Their 15-member bipartisan commission would be composed of analysts who would develop metrics to help Congress evaluate federal programs and guide budget negotiations. It would not be empowered to write any legislation, and its report would not be binding in any way. It would simply study how Congress can better use data.

Establishing a bipartisan commission is usually the first resort of timid politicians, allowing them to push hard decisions on controversial issues onto other people. And usually a commission’s reports are put on a shelf to collect dust. But Murray and Ryan aren’t trying to duck a controversial issue so much as change the nature of the dialogue between Democrats and Republicans around federal spending.

Right now, those conversations are driven almost entirely by political and ideological considerations. Actual evidence -- data on how government programs are performing -- has almost nothing to do with it.

Both parties could use the data to their advantage -- to justify more spending on programs that are working or less spending on programs that aren't. And they will inevitably disagree on whether the right response to an inefficient government program is to improve it or eliminate it. But at least the argument could be grounded in some evidence, and it's just possible that it could shift more toward acceptable trade-offs than whether government is good or evil.

Data alone won’t end Washington’s dysfunction, of course. But it’s a good place to start.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.