Honestly, this isn't asking too much. As Congress debates the federal budget for 2016, a reasonable question to ask about the many, many programs it funds is this: "Does it work?"
"Earlier this month, the House Budget Committee proposed spending almost $3.8 trillion in fiscal year 2016 — one-fifth of the country's total economic output," writes David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation. "Yet much of that huge amount will be spent with little regard to efficiency and accountability. The sad truth is that, for many federal programs, we have no way of knowing whether they are working well, poorly or not at all. It is not uncommon for programs to operate for decades — with total costs running to tens and hundreds of billions — without ever undergoing thorough scientific evaluations."
That's important, because intentions matter, but results matter more. History shows that some programs achieve the opposite of their intended effects. Large-scale public housing projects, for example, sought to help the poor. Instead, they concentrated poverty and urban problems and made life miserable for generations of the very people they intended to help.
Other government programs simply fail to achieve their goals.
"Consider Head Start, the pre-K education program for disadvantaged children," Muhlhausen notes. "A large-scale evaluation using random assignment demonstrated that almost all the benefits of the program disappear by kindergarten. Yet Congress continues to pump billions into the failed program."
It's a matter of metrics.
How do government officials measure the effectiveness of any given program?
"Far too frequently, Washington measures success by the amount of money spent to alleviate social problems, rather than the degree to which funded programs actually reduce the problems," he explains. "While continually spending taxpayer dollars may symbolize the compassion of program advocates, it does not mean that society is any better off because of it."
Other programs are rated by participation rates — and higher participation rates are seen as policy success. While that may be true of, say, a job training program, it's definitely not true of a welfare program, such as food stamps, where "success" should be defined as getting people off of it.
But MuhlHausen says there's a new movement toward what he calls "scientifically rigorous evaluations" of the effectiveness of programs.
"Scientifically rigorous impact evaluations are essential," he writes. "They can help policymakers exercise informed oversight of government programs and be more effective stewards of the federal purse. There is little merit in continuing programs that fail to ameliorate their targeted social problems. Continued funding should be contingent on hard data that prove a program is getting the intended job done."
A bipartisan bill, offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last year, is titled the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act.
That act would create a commission to actually measure the effectiveness of various policies and programs.
As Sen. Murray notes, "The families and communities we represent deserve a government that works for them and delivers results."
This is a completely reasonable goal. We should get what we're paying for, shouldn't we?