Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan are professors at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.
The new Democratic House enjoys a rich array of targets as it sets out to check the Trump administration. In prioritizing, congressional oversight committees should focus on those pockets of government where the Trump administration has effectively deployed a hidden tool of policymaking: using administrative burdens to make it harder for people to access public services.
Start with the Trump administration’s obsession with work requirements. Last year, the president issued an executive order calling for deploying “work requirements when legally permissible.” As a result, the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services has encouraged states to seek waivers to adopt work requirements for Medicaid. After failing to win congressional support for new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, the Agriculture Department pledged to remove state discretion about how existing work requirements are used.
Without passing any new legislation, the Trump administration will have used administrative burdens to significantly change the nature of two of our largest social programs: 73 million and 40 million Americans are served by Medicaid and SNAP, respectively.
Such mandates undermine the statutory goals of these programs, which are to improve the public’s health and nutrition rather than promoting employment. A more insidious aspect of work requirements is the myriad bureaucratic obstacles they raise for people to prove their work status. Thousands of Medicaid recipients in Arkansas have already lost health insurance, in no small part because of burdensome reporting requirements. This is in line with one analysis published last summer, which projected that most people who disenroll from Medicaid would do so not because they are not working but because they are struggling to deal with new reporting procedures.
Administrative burdens are not new. They are the frictions of interacting with government: the learning costs of finding out if we are eligible for a program; the compliance costs of filling out a form or responding to bureaucratic directives; and the psychological costs that come from a bad experience in a welfare office. Cumulatively, these burdens color our experience and perception of government. They are, to some degree, inevitable, but they are often deployed unnecessarily.
Our new book, “Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means,” shows that burdens affect whether people exercise basic rights, such as voting, and whether they receive benefits that can improve their quality of life, such as health insurance. Burdens alter the effectiveness of public programs by restricting whether benefits reach their target population. Across an array of social programs, one- to two-thirds of those eligible do not receive benefits. In contrast, almost all eligible recipients receive Social Security. The difference is at least partly because of the administrative burdens.
The consequences of these burdens can be larger than formal policy changes that alter eligibility. For example, as administrative burdens increased for SNAP recipients, takeup among eligible beneficiaries declined from 75 percent in 1994 to 54 percent in 2001. That’s equivalent to approximately 1 in 5 Americans residing below the poverty line in 2001 losing benefits. Takeup rebounded to 87 percent in 2011 due, in part, to concerted efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to cut barriers. By contrast, eligibility expansions rarely help so many people.
Political stereotypes portray liberals as comfortable using state power to regulate while conservatives oppose government intrusion. Such a view not only confuses the romance of libertarianism with the practice of contemporary conservatism but also hides a major feature of contemporary public policy: Republicans have weaponized administrative burdens to achieve policy goals, most obviously in the areas of voting, abortion, welfare and health insurance.
Conditioning voting on access to a certain type of photo ID or forcing infrequent voters to reregister makes political participation more onerous. Courts have intervened to block the undue burdens that Republican state legislatures have placed on abortion access. In social policies, Republicans support not just work requirements but also longer forms and more documentation, drug testing and more intensive welfare audits. They are also less supportive of outreach efforts to reduce learning and compliance costs. For example, after Republican governors restricted navigators seeking to help people enroll in the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration slashed its own outreach budget.
Republicans have figured out how to build this politics of burdens despite opposing it in other areas — such as the regulation of businesses, campaign finance or firearms. As it increased burdens on individuals, regulations on businesses have been cut, particularly at such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
Progressives who seek to reduce poverty and inequality largely by expanding programs such as SNAP and Medicaid will fail to do so if they don’t also recognize the centrality of administrative burdens to their goals. A top priority for the new Democratic House oversight committees should be to identify, investigate and challenge the use of administrative burdens to advance partisan goals at the cost of making Americans’ interactions with government more onerous.