Policy Center (BPC) is a think tank that brings Democrats and
Republicans together to come up with proposals that can actually
pass as legislation or be implemented by regulators.
Justin Schardin, most other Washington, D.C.-based
think tanks tend to be more ideological, while
recommendations tend to be more pragmatic.
"Every task force and commission we put together has a
bipartisan split on it," he said. "What they're going to
recommend is stuff they can both live with. It's a niche that's
valuable to have in Washington and elsewhere."
Project has allowed the Center to branch out from federal-level
work to state-level work.
BPC's Matthew Weil
said about four or five years after the Center was founded, the
organization realized it was not a complete approach to focus
only on federal policy, but that a need existed to focus on the
policymaking process itself as well.
So BPC started the
Democracy Project to focus on institutions, not just policy
areas. Weil said the project has branched out to more
state-level work, specifically on elections and voting,
redistricting and other things that are important federally, but
not managed federally. He works with state and county officials
on how state law, use of best practices and voting technology
can shorten lines to polling places.
What has caused
the breakdown of the policy process?
there are not just one or two reasons, but 100 different things
that have happened to cause the breakdown. He named what he
called 10 "big ones":
"It's as bad today, by some metrics, as it's been in over 100
years," he said.
A breakdown in governing
norms: the use of
the filibuster and other tactics that weren't used before, but
that people now feel very free to use. "It's a lot easier to
block things than to get things done for some of those
reasons," he said.
The inability of Congress
to function normally contributing to a breakdown in government
fueling a distrust of government.
An accelerating amount of
change. "That makes
people uncomfortable and often fearful, sometimes
disproportionately to what they should be, which leads to bad
decisions," he said.
Proliferation of social
media. People are
often only exposed to people who agree with them, he said.
He said that's always been there, but it doesn't help the
A breakdown in a sense of
Voters asking for absolute
"To the extent that voters favor compromise as a way to get
half a loaf that is better than the status quo, that helps get
policy done," he said. "To the extent that there are absolutes
and a sense that compromise is a bad thing, that hurts the
The tactics of
public policy groups at the state and national level have
Weil said there
used to be more compromise, but now everything is in absolutes.
In redistricting reform, for example, he said some methods have
bipartisan support and some are far more partisan.
He noted that
League of Women Voters (LWV) groups are very different from
state to state and they've approached redistricting reform
differently in different states. When working on the issue in
Florida, Weil said, the LWV took an all-or-nothing approach.
"They were unwilling to compromise on anything," he said.
"They would not budge, would not waver and it didn't get passed."
In contrast, he
said, redistricting reform did pass in
where the LWV was willing to compromise and work with other
groups. The LWV in Ohio is showing that same willingness to work
together and to compromise, he noted. "They seem to know that
getting some of what you want is better than getting nothing."
Some groups are
unwilling to accept anything less than what they want, Weil
continued. Some groups, including BPC, are good at accepting
something less than perfect if it is bipartisan and achievable.
At the state level, far more groups have to be absolutists,
rather than compromisers, because of their memberships.
"When you get
absolutist positions," Schardin pointed out, "sometimes it's for
mostly valid policy reasons.
But a lot of it has to do with what you think of other people."
People who think the other side is evil will oppose whatever the
other side wants. "It leads to a situation where it causes more
pain if the other side gets anything than the satisfaction that
comes from getting part of what you want passed," he said.
"That's a really unhealthy situation. Maybe there's more of it
today than there was before."
Schardin said it
seems like there are more ideological groups out there now, but
that he doesn't have any evidence to back up that observation.
public does not wrestle with issues as much as they used to.
People are far more likely to accept partisan cues on issues
than they were before, Weil said. "People are taking their cues
from the national parties, whether they admit it or not." The
reason, he said, is that people are not as educated on policy
issues or policy process as they used to be.
that in some cases, people are taking their cues from an
individual broadcaster they trust or a friend they trust,
because they don't have time to follow all of the issues
themselves. "If they choose the wrong person, they put
themselves in a bad situation," he said.
He pointed out
that today the media are very fragmented.
"Forty years ago, everybody was watching three different evening
There were a lot more shared experiences.
Now it's very easy to just listen to people who agree with you.
That's problematic and I'm not sure what to do about it."
He said there are
a lot of people who want to get good policy done.
"They come to places like
BPC to find a
process that finds areas of agreement and puts together a plan."
Schardin said he
doesn't know if people are less educated about policy issues
today, but there is a tendency to only be educated in positions
they already believe. "There are so many more options now to
hear only the messages you want to hear and not to hear the
messages you don't want to hear."
At the state
level, organizations that make more of an effort to bring in
disparate opinions are more successful.
For example, Weil said, the League of Women Voters has been more
successful in moving voting rights legislation than other groups.
The BPC receives
about two-thirds of its funding from foundations and about
one-third from corporations and individuals.
said the foundation funding is typically earmarked for specific
projects, while the corporate and individual funding is
commented that during his years of working for the Citizens
League, it received no earmarked funding. "It set its own work
program; it wasn't decided by others."
He asked whether the foundations fund existing
BPC projects or
give money to BPC to undertake specific projects in which the
foundations are interested.
that mostly the foundations fund specific projects, either
existing or new ones, while corporations donate to the
as a whole rather than funding individual projects.
Some projects are more able to attract foundation funding than
then asked how the BPC feels about its funding leading it to a
Schardin responded, "The conclusions are ours."
He said the organization raises money and has volunteer task
force co-chairs for each project. They are the authors of the
papers, for the most part. "We insulate them from the
There's a movement
now where some people on both sides of the aisle are looking to
discredit think tanks generally, Schardin said. "It's one more
public institution in danger of losing trust, and there just
aren't that many such institutions left."
projects and reports are aimed at different audiences.
said BPC's big political reform project had different audiences:
Congress, federal agencies, mostly state legislators and county
governments, and a bit at the general public. He said most of
the targeted audience for his projects is legislators who have
control over the issue.
Schardin said the
financial reform task force learned one lesson early on: We had
more success if we focused our recommendations on regulators
rather than on Congress, because "Congress can get very little
He said the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer
Protection Act, the main financial reform legislation, had
"So we could assess what was working and then go to the
regulators and say, 'You should do it this way.'"
Weil said a
project's or report's effectiveness is higher when it's aimed at
people who have the ability and power to make change.
Foundations funding a project, though, are interested in how the
work engages with the public and have benchmarks for success,
such as the number of people reached through Twitter.
Getting rid of
earmarks has harmed the ability of Congress to get things done.
Schardin said when
Congress did away with earmarks, "it was really bad for what we
do." Earmarks amounted to a small percentage of spending, he
They don't increase spending, but they determine who decides
where the spending goes.
Removing the earmarks "took away a significant weapon that
allowed deals to be made in Congress.
Now you have nothing you can give to members for their votes.
That whole process sounds dirty to the public, but most of the
time, it's not.
Getting rid of earmarks has harmed the ability of Congress to
get things done."
asked if the change in governing norms, such as the more
frequent use of filibustering, is partly due to the elimination
of earmarks. Getting rid of them seemed like a good idea, but it
has made it harder to get cooperation within debates in
Congress, the interviewer said.
and said the existence of the filibuster is accidental.
After the rules of the Senate were established, someone
discovered there was a loophole that allowed filibusters.
But it was used rarely. "In government, people have always had
the power to do certain things, but they restrained themselves
from doing them. They knew if they did, the other side would do
it back and it would cause a lot of back-and-forth friction."
But over the last
few decades, he said, people have been more and more willing to
use those things, like not allowing votes on amendments.
"There are a lot of norms people used to restrain themselves
from using that they're not anymore.
It really harms the process."
Weil said his
project has been working with some Senators lately on
reinstating some of those old norms and making them part of the
"We need more structured rules for the process that allow
Senators not to be the enemies of themselves.
We've run into a lot of walls. They don't want to even discuss
"The use of
hostage-taking to force the other side to either capitulate or
shut the government down is really dangerous," Schardin said.
"You either have to reestablish those norms, which is really
hard, or the structure doesn't work anymore."
systems don't work very well in lots of places, he said.
It's worked in the
U.S. for several
hundred years. "If you have a ton of checks and balances, like
we do, and norms fall away, the situation is pretty rickety and
nothing ever gets done.
People run for office, promising lots of things they're going to
they get elected, they find they can't do any of them.
And the public doesn't know who to blame.
It's a lot easier to block things than to get things done."
You run into
problems when you try to legislate something that runs counter
to what people want to do.
asked how we can balance trying to educate people to change
their attitudes as opposed to imposing rules to change things.
there is a conflict between people's attitudes on Wall Street
reform and what people want to see in law.
The process used
recently to reach the federal budget agreement was not ideal,
but both sides came away feeling they'd gotten something.
Weil pointed out that at the end of the process, there was
genuine negotiation on both sides.
"From a bipartisan point of view, that's great," he said.
"There are a couple of things in that bill I hate, but overall,
I loved the process."
"It's a case of
compromise and practicality," Schardin said. It's hard to do if
a lot of major policy options are simply off the table and
With the emergence
of social media, does the country become "too democratic" by
everyone trying to please the public and not functioning more as
a true republic?
interviewer asked that question, Weil responded that he'd be
careful about saying we're too democratic. There are structural
reasons why politicians can't do what they want to do. "What we
need is for politicians to have a space where they can actually
make those tough decisions. And right now, they don't have it.
They're so scared of losing a primary to someone to the right or
the left. It's an overall process problem rather than a social
Schardin said he
thinks politicians listen intensely to voters.
"They're very often giving voters what they want.
There's a lack of self-awareness sometimes of why we actually
make decisions. We're maybe trusting the wrong people: those who
are talking big, but don't know what they're talking about."
BPC takes the
initiative in setting its agenda.
"We push the
issues we think need to be covered," Weil said.
"We don't let funders dictate what we do. We pitch the projects
we want to do." Schardin said BPC tries not to write about
issues everybody else has already written about. "We usually
focus on things that haven't been done or, most often, on
emerging issues," he said.
Schardin said when
BPC is determining issues on which it wants to work, staff
members will write blog posts exploring those areas. Two areas
BPC is considering currently are (1) reforming
anti-money-laundering laws; and (2) modernizing the payment
system, as it goes more towards mobile methods, rather than more
traditional forms of payment.
regulatory project has worked on six major papers, with 20
different volunteer co-chairs.
while the project task forces are developing recommendations,
they try to meet with every stakeholder: industry, consumer
advocates, academics and current and former regulators.
He defined stakeholders as people who care about the outcome.
Weil said BPC's
total budget is about $20 million and it has about 90 staff
asked whether early in the process of a project,
thinks about implementation possibilities.
Schardin said the political has to be part of that early stage.
He said BPC's
president, Jason Grumet, has said
BPC is not only a
think tank, but also a do tank.
You have to think through the political hurdles, Schardin said,
and make sure stakeholders will listen to the recommendations.
What is the role
of major-league research universities in BPC's work?
In asking this
question, an interviewer also asked, Are they bystanders? Are
they participants? Could they do more? How do they participate
in this kind of work?
that university participation is very valuable.
cites university professors' work and interviews a lot of them.
"The sense of independence that tenured professors have is
mostly a good thing," he said. "But we are also cautious in
asking academics to become co-chairs of our task forces because
they come from a world where they don't have to compromise."
controversy about the federal government funding social science
research, he said, calling that a big mistake since such
research can contribute substantially to our understanding and
creating effective policy.
How can we
stimulate state-level "do-gooder" organizations to develop more
An interviewer posed this question, asking what these
organizations could tell legislators to do and what kind of
accountability there is for organizations like BPC and the Civic
Caucus to develop specific proposals.
that there has to be trust in the organizations.
They have to speak legislators' language and tell them both that
this is good policy and that this is how they can satisfy their
BPC has had some
success by bringing legislators and state officials from a state
that has passed voter reform legislation to speak to states that
are considering such changes.
Democratic public officials from one state can talk
to colleagues in
about why they
think things like online voter registration are good policies,
Weil remarked. That approach works better than BPC coming in
from Washington to tell state and local officials what to do.
has a strong opinion about financial regulation, but almost
nobody knows how it works.
Schardin said it's one of the most technical and complicated
policy issues in the U.S. "That creates a very interesting
dynamic," he said.
"Almost anything that's done there creates a lot of controversy."