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Public Administration – The Tip of the Iceberg

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
October 15, 2018

What we read in the press or see on TV is just the tip of the iceberg of what is really going on in government.

I’ve been retired for over three years and I can’t help but notice the disconnect between what I see in the press and TV and what I remember about the federal government from the inside. So much of the daily press coverage is about possible misconduct, presidential tweets of a non-policy nature and political “horse race” issues as opposed to substantive policy and administrative issues. Major policy issues like tax reform and the various proposals to repeal Obamacare did receive a good deal of press coverage. A vast number of secondary and tertiary issues go largely unreported by the national press. Some important policy issues receive limited “high level” coverage.

For example, on September 21, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed a 447-page regulatory change entitled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds.” The regulation would make it harder for some immigrants to obtain visas or green cards by redefining the welfare benefits that go into the public charge calculation. Previously, only cash benefits were considered. Now, benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and Section 8 housing will be considered. The underlying law allows the government to reject an applicant for a visa or green card if the applicant is likely to become a public charge. DHS is issuing regulations to clarify what this means. DHS estimates the new regulation would affect about 382,000 persons a year.

The DHS document is exceptionally complex no doubt partly because DHS wants to make multiple changes to an area of regulations that is already very complex. Part of the complexity is the result of “regulating the regulators.” To issue regulations, an agency must jump through numerous hoops. For example, it must analyze in detail the impact of the regulation on the agency’s paperwork burden on the public. There may be a need for a cost/benefit analysis.

The Public Charge policy affecting applicants for visas and green cards is a very small part of total immigration law and regulations and yet it took a 447-page document to make the proposed changes.  On September 22, 2018, the New York Times did a 1,400-word article on the proposed rule. The Times article discusses the content of the rule but also the pros and cons and the political impact. It turns out the rule’s complexity could actually cause some persons not affected by the rule to reduce their use of public assistance programs because they might erroneously fear loss of immigration status by using public assistance programs. The Times says:

The complex web of technicalities surrounding the new rule are difficult to understand, said Charles Wheeler, a legal expert at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, so the number of immigrants who withdraw from programs could exceed even the number who are subject to the rule.

Several shorter news stories on this issue appear on September 22, 2018, and in the days that followed. I believe the Times story and the other at best address a “high level” view of the proposed regulation but not the detailed impacts that immigrants would need to understand to make an informed decision about using public assistance programs.

Over the years, I worked many hours helping to determine how to implement individual sentences and paragraphs of the U.S. Code provisions assigned to my agency. I worked entirely on non-regulatory documents. I’m referring to internal manuals, training guides, forms, web site pages, computer documentation, pamphlets, guidance letters, etc. An agency’s non-regulatory documents vastly exceed the laws and regulations by thousands and thousands of pages. In fact, I’m sure you could fill several large tables with the non-regulatory documents for my agency.

The documents I worked on were designed primarily for field level employees within the agency and program stakeholders. The issues I dealt seldom received national press coverage. I believe most federal policy and administrative issues are like that. It’s not that agencies are hiding anything or that something nefarious is going on. I don’t believe there is a “deep state” or a swamp that needs to be drained. The national press simply doesn’t dig too deeply into what the government is doing because the public cares about a few selected issues and doesn’t care much about the more routine details of government.

Many issues are covered in more detail by the press that covers special interests. For example, the public doesn’t care much about changes to the federal Thrift Savings Plan, but federal employees do care about such changes. Publications oriented to federal employees cover such topics.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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