WASHINGTON – For the first time since the modern budget process was initiated more than 40 years ago, the Republican chairs of the Senate and House Budget committees announced that they would not invite the president’s budget director to testify.
What seems like an act of disrespect for President Barack Obama (something Republicans have reveled in for seven years) may also have reflected frustration that the chairmen, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, felt when their own leadership often went around them in negotiations on last year’s big budget accord. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a champion of decorum and regular order, is reportedly unhappy over the snubbing of Shaun Donovan, Obama’s budget chief.
In any event, Republicans probably wouldn’t mind if Obama’s new budget were widely ignored. Then, they would not be forced to admit that many of the values that underlie it – the desire for social programs that promote work, the need to use evidence in deciding which programs to fund – are values they extol.
Ryan has said repeatedly that he believes in doing more to help the poor and has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to push for evidence-based policymaking. As it happens, Obama’s new budget includes ideas that Ryan has supported in the past (such as an increase in the earned income tax credit for low-income childless workers) and other proposals (for example, a program to improve nutrition during the summer for poor children on the school lunch program) that are based on pilot tests and careful research on what works.
This budget thus presents Ryan with challenging choices. He will be under pressure from the right end of his caucus that he has attempted to mollify to pick fights with the president and slash his programs. But he has made a great effort to impress on all who would listen that he passionately believes conservatism should have a heart for the marginalized and the needy. And many of Obama’s initiatives will be hard for Ryan to dismiss as simply welfare state retreads.
If Donovan were to testify – and perhaps Enzi and Price, having offered their protest, will eventually let him appear – this is the case he would make.
“So often, our fights are around big government versus small government, and what evidence-based policy is about is smart government, which everybody should be for,” Donovan said in an interview. “Smart government won’t solve all our issues, but it allows us to focus resources on programs that make a difference.”
He points to the administration’s proposals to end family homelessness and use housing vouchers to help those down on their luck move to neighborhoods with better opportunities. Research, he said, shows that children who get out of the streets and shelters and into areas where they and their parents are more likely to find good jobs enjoy enormous upward swings in their lifetime incomes.
“No kid should grow up in a shelter or on the streets,” Donovan said, “and fixing that is not only good for the kids but also for the country and the taxpayer.”
Other administration proposals would improve job training for the recipients of public assistance and use the unemployment insurance system to create wage insurance: Those who go back to work at lower pay levels than their previous jobs provided would have their incomes topped up. It’s a classic pro-work use of government funds. Head Start, the school-readiness program for young children, would get additional money so more kids could attend full time for an entire school year. Again, research suggests this makes a major difference in long-term academic performance.
In political campaigns, politicians (and pundits, too) tend to talk in broad and vague terms, usually emphasizing all the ways in which government fails. This prompts a sense of hopelessness among voters and a feeling of futility about our collective capacity to solve problems.
But we are learning a lot about how to measure what makes programs work. In the process, we’re discovering that intelligent government spending can bet on human aspiration and the intense desire people have to rise out of poverty. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said about earlier efforts to solve social problems, “There have been more successes than we seem to want to know.”
So here’s hoping that alongside an angry presidential campaign, Obama and Donovan will make their case for smart government and an approach to social policy that is at once compassionate and pragmatic. You can even imagine a catchy slogan for their effort: “Yes we can.”
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.