Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Mere anecdotes

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Rep. Brandt Smith
  • Rep. Brandt Smith

"Are we now going to govern by anecdote?" the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) asked in 1995 in response to stories of a small number of women on welfare "gaming" the system in a manner similar to the so-called "Welfare Queen" President Ronald Reagan warned us about. Today, just as it was 20 years ago, it seems too many in government tend to propose sweeping legislation based on one or two tales they have heard that, if all of the data is examined, are actually outliers.

Here in Arkansas, Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) wants to upend the entire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for everyone, including veterans, and cost the state and grocery stores hundreds of thousands of dollars because a few poor mothers out there put Mountain Dew or Pepsi in their child's sippy cup. Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) feels the need to spend considerable effort and time trying to pass a "Sharia Law" bill due to vague information communicated by one of his supporters about a custody case in Maryland, since overturned, where a dad allegedly lost custody due to the judge referencing international law. Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) claims to want to make our schools safer, yet disregards the wishes of police and ignores data about the dangers of guns on campuses to press ahead with his "campus carry" bill based on the slim chance of an attack by an active shooter who could only be stopped by a gun-toting student or faculty member.

President Trump, in an effort to diffuse the brutal numbers coming out of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office regarding the proposed replacement to the Affordable Care Act, met with a dozen of the "victims of Obamacare," as he called them. These 12 people represent the small percentage of individuals and families who saw a sharp rise in premiums or loss of coverage after the passage of the ACA. Trump holds these people out as proof the ACA is a disaster while ignoring the data that shows millions of people are now covered and many lives have been saved by this increased coverage and lower premiums. Instead of leading an effort to tweak the law and fix some of the problems, he wants to scrap the entire thing and replace it with a plan that, as research is showing, will lead to millions of Americans losing coverage and seniors seeing a sharp rise in premiums.

Trump has made a similar play with immigration reform. Ignoring the data that shows immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than nonimmigrants, he frequently trots out a couple of stories of horrible crimes committed by immigrants and whips his base into a "let's deport 'em all now" frenzy. These offenses are outliers, just like the stories of those who were hurt by the Affordable Care Act. They should not be swept under the rug, but they must be viewed in context with comprehensive data and facts when deciding how to move forward with policy.

An appropriate response to a law's unintended consequence is the recent bill sponsored by Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers*) and Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) proposing a change to our drug paraphernalia statute. In 2011, due to an oversight, Arkansas ended up with a law that resulted in low-level drug offenders facing more prison time for the baggie containing the drugs than the drugs themselves. Most prosecutors across the state understand the absurdity of the law, but a few prosecutors use it and use it often. Della Rosa and Hutchinson are not proposing repeal of the entire statute or all of our drug laws (although, personally, I wish they would, as I believe we need to stop criminalizing addiction). They address the problem by proposing a narrow solution.

I get it. Facts are boring. Efficient government is boring. A small fix to existing legislation is boring. Salacious stories of extreme outcomes and outrageous waste are captivating and play well in committee meetings, stump speeches and addresses to Congress. Fear and outrage rule the day. While there is tremendous value in individual constituent stories and first-hand accounts of the effects of laws and regulations, as the late Sen. Wellstone pointed out, mere anecdotes without data and research to back them up should not be the driving force behind legislation.

*A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. Jana Della Rosa's hometown.

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