Here’s my list of mistakes made by political columnists and economists who are heavily influenced by all the outward trappings of politics by have no actual idea how policies are really made.
1) Regulations are written by normal people with normal human motivations. There are still some old timers around the various agencies that I work with who take the concept of public service seriously. They fly coach even if they’re eligible for a more expensive ticket. They get the taxi driver to fill out the receipt, etc. But all of these people will retire in the next few years.
2) Stop acting like regulations are written with an eye to costs and benefits. Those of us that write rules cannot possible understand the total costs and benefits of any particular rule. Lots of people write as if we carefully weigh the costs and benefits and come to optimal solution that is beneficial for society. No regulation has ever been written in this way. Agencies may debate costs and benefits amongst themselves, but there are too many variables so that this debate degenerates quickly. Since I’m a good bureaucrat, I can argue that benefits of virtually any potential regulation outweigh the costs. Any other decent bureaucrat could take the other side.
3) Regulations are written to increase the authority or funding for the agency writing the regulation. I have yet to see an exception to this law (Foseti’s Law?).
4) In general political columnists and economists pay way too much attention to the person at the top of the agency and not to the permanent staff of the agency. If you want to understand an agency, you have to understand its staff.
5) I’ve worked at three agencies. At all three agencies, I worked under two different heads of the agencies. I’ve been in government under two different Presidents. So far, I haven’t seen the day-to-day work of anyone (outside of someone I know who works at the Justice Department) change in any way when the President changed or when the head of the agencies changed.
6) Virtually everyone that writes regulations has the same political philosophy.
7) Virtually everyone that writes regulations cannot be fired from their job. Authority without responsibility is not a recipe for success in any circumstance.
8) Often the only people paying attention to a regulation are those directly impacted by the regulation. They generally know the subject matter better than those writing the regulation.
Update: In the comments, Handle adds: “most regulations are written with a mind of preserving maximum discretion, option value, and room-for-maneuver.” Very true. People shouldn’t forget that regulators are often legislator, executive and judiciary.