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Congress and Evidence-Based Policymaking: Creating a 21st Century Legislature

The 15-member Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking appointed by President Obama and the bipartisan leadership of Congress, began its work in the summer of 2016 and is scheduled to report its recommendations by September of 2017.

Congress’ effort to create the commission represented a welcome display of bipartisanship. In April 2015, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) sponsored the legislation establishing the commission. Both members had introduced identical bills in the prior Congress, when each was serving as the respective chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees. The final legislation was approved by the House and the Senate without objection, and was signed into law on March 30, 2016 (H.R. 1831, Public law 114-140).

The legislation directs the commission to “conduct a comprehensive study of the data inventory, data infrastructure, and statistical protocols related to federal policymaking and the agencies responsible for maintaining that data.” The commission is also to make recommendations on how those data systems and protocols should be changed to make them more useful for evaluating the effectiveness of federal policies and programs. It is further directed to “make recommendations on how best to incorporate outcomes measurement, institutionalize randomized controlled trials, and rigorous impact analysis into program design.”

The commission’s creation is an important step for Congress as it seeks to modernize and strengthen its fundamental lawmaking capacity. 

At first glance, the creation of a government commission to study federal data and statistics would seem at best a subject of interest to a relatively specialized group of program managers, researchers, and academics?perhaps not rising to a level of interest or significance generated by the important and controversial policy matters that routinely confront Congress. However, the commission’s creation is an important step for Congress as it seeks to modernize and strengthen its fundamental lawmaking capacity in response to the complexities of modern governing.

In creating the commission, lawmakers acknowledged that the large and growing stores of administrative and other data held by federal agencies and other entities, combined with increasingly sophisticated and complex methods to analyze that data, represent both a tremendous opportunity and a daunting challenge. Federal data stores are an important building block in the emerging field of evidence-based policymaking?an approach to policymaking that uses findings from scientifically designed research studies and program evaluations to measure whether programs achieve their stated goals.

An evidence-based policymaking approach could provide lawmakers with valuable metrics on how well programs are working.

Evidence-based policymaking requires the use of valid and reliable data to measure program outcomes. Such an approach has the potential to provide lawmakers with valuable metrics on how well programs are working. At the same time, however, the effective use of federal and other data sets may be limited by the sheer volume of data; outdated computer systems; difficulty accessing, analyzing, and understanding the data; inadequate staff capacity; and practical questions about how that data can be used in a legislative setting in a timely fashion.

As the commission studies and prepares to make recommendations on the optimal use of federal and other data in the policymaking process, Congress should consider whether it is well-positioned to make optimal use of that data as well. In the complex and rapidly-changing policy environment of the 21st century, Congress is better able to carry out its core legislative duties if it can use data, evidence, and other modern information sources in the most effective manner possible.


The Bipartisan Policy Center is exploring how to advance the use of evidence-based policymaking in Congress. Evidence-based policymaking uses findings from rigorous research and program evaluations to guide decisions about public policy and funding. The goal of an evidence-based approach is to more rigorously drive public funding toward policies that achieve positive social outcomes for people at the lowest possible cost.

BPC is consulting with congressional staff, other key participants in the policymaking process, and policy experts to gather ideas about the most effective ways to employ evidence-based approaches in the legislative process. From these conversations, BPC is seeking to identify the challenges to greater use of rigorous evidence in Congress, discern ways to address those challenges, and craft recommendations to build a stronger foundation of rigorous evidence in the routine work of Congress.

This white paper provides a brief overview of evidence-based policymaking and recent interest in Congress. Based on our interviews, the paper outlines the broad challenges to the wider use of evidence-based policymaking in the legislative process and suggests a broad framework for creating an evidence-based culture in Congress. Later this year, BPC will release a final report with concrete recommendations for achieving more robust evidence-based policymaking.

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