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The constant struggle of focusing on what matters

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During the 115th Congress, over 13,500 bills were introduced, of which just 867 got a vote and 443 became enacted law.

The bills passed included the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which will help to provide expeditious disclosure of all records related to civil rights cold cases. The Department of Transportation Reports Harmonization Act aimed to amend transportation-related reporting requirements in order to improve congressional oversight, promote transparency, and reduce reporting burdens on agencies. The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act attempted to expand recreational fishing opportunities by enhancing fishery conservation.

Each of these bills had the potential to provide some benefit to society: some corrected historical wrongs while others aimed to improve government functioning or enhance the lifestyle of certain subgroups. But are they important enough, impactful enough, to make the 115th Congress’s top 400 enacted laws? Would you want your representative or party spending their political capital to pass them?

During every presidential debate, the same question is asked: What would you do in your first one hundred days? It is a tired, uncreative question that often yields bland responses, but the central drive of the question gets at one of the most undiscussed, but unrelenting, laws of politics: you can only do so much.

Let’s take a look at one issue: Immigration. Below is a short list of some of the various policies that have been proposed to deal with the current immigration crisis.

1.     Provide a path to citizen for DACA recipients

2.     Expand the visa lottery

3.     Abolish ICE

4.     Increase border security

5.     Limit family and chain migration

6.     Reduce legal immigration

And there are many more. People who ardently support some of these proposals likely oppose others. Many of these proposals, however, have overlapping support.

On an issue as contested as immigration, passing even one of these policies would cost either party a tremendous amount of political capital. It would be nearly impossible for a president or congressional leader to pass two or three of these reforms, unless they dedicated their entire administration exclusively to the pursuit of reforming the immigration system. This forces policymakers and citizens to ask: When focusing on one particular issue area, which reform is most important to pursue?

Thankfully, we have government data related to countless contentious political issues, including healthcare, gun control and criminal justice. On the issue of immigration alone, there is data available on the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the US Courts website regarding immigration numbers, detention rates and asylum cases. 

I rarely see, however, a politician justifying their support for a given piece of legislation by using this available data to evaluate the impact of their proposed policy. For example, environmental advocates rarely explain why the Green New Deal would have a more profound impact than a carbon tax or cap and trade scheme alone. Instead, we frequently think about the impact of policies in terms of how “extreme” they seem on paper. We assume that the more extreme, the greater the impact.

This has been made crystal clear during the Democratic debates. Candidates have been competing with each other over who can have the most progressive, most extreme policy proposal to tackle a given issue. In some cases, these extremely progressive policies have data supporting them that does suggest they would have greater impact toward their target goal. In many other cases, however, the support just does not exist. 

Consider the immigration debate once again. During the first night of the debate, Julian Castro ’96 announced his support for repealing section 1325 of the US Code, effectively decriminalizing the act of crossing the Mexican border without authorization. A few candidates followed, endorsing the same policy. This policy is extremely progressive, and it is considered by some Republican circles to be tantamount to open borders. The policy gained traction after it served as a legal basis for family separation, even though it is likely that the Trump administration would have used any available law to justify the inhumane practice of detaining parents separately from children. 

The criminalization of border-crossing, though, has led to the prosecution of approximately 504 individuals this year. Strengthening DACA or allowing migrant workers to stay in the United States legally, on the other hand, are both reforms that would impact millions. Notwithstanding, both of these policies are considered less extreme and have more bipartisan support. This begs the question: Is it worth fighting for the repeal of a statue that affects so few individuals?

Elizabeth Warren brazenly pointed this out in the first debate when she said that, although she was deeply concerned about the gun control issue, she wanted to conduct research on solutions due to the lack of data on what would best address the gun issue in this country. 

“We can’t treat this as an across-the-board problem. We have to treat it like a public health emergency,” Warren said. “That means bring data to bear and it means make real change in this country, whether it’s politically popular or not.” 

Applying this type of data-driven thinking to which policies are most important to address first would radically change the current approach to many areas of politics. There are tens of thousands of bills any given individual, policymaker or citizen, would agree with that could pass, even in today’s political climate, so it is up to us to decide what is important, what change we most urgently need to see now, and what can wait until tomorrow.

Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Claire Dinshaw is a rising senior majoring in economics and minoring in political science and feminism, gender and sexuality studies. She is originally from Connecticut. Contact at [email protected]