White House Petition Goose Eggs

Over at the cyber-equivalent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House has a website devoted to allowing citizens to petition the government on various issues. The hook to this site, titled We the People, is that if enough signatures are gathered, the White House will issue an official response. As of this writing, the threshold is 100,000 signatures, but when this website first went on-line, the bar to clear was much lower.

In the past few weeks, there have been petitions that have met the 100,000 limit and are awaiting a response from the Executive Branch. Examples include a request to file charges against 47 Senators who sent a letter to Iran and one requesting laws that forbid mandatory vaccination.

At the moment, this website has on display 168 responses including the response as to why the Obama Administration will not be building a Death Star.

Here is what I found interesting and it deals with zeroes.

When petitions are created, the author can select from a list of categories that cover the issue mentioned by the petition. For example, the petition about the Senators was filed under three issues (Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, Foreign Policy, and Government Reform). The anti-vax petition also covered three issues (Civil Rights and Liberties, Health Care, Human Rights).

The official responses to petitions have their own page on the We the People website and they are sortable by issue. Of the thirty-nine issue categories, there is one issue that is a runaway favorite. The issue of “Foreign Policy” has thirty official responses, which is the highest number for any issue category. Number two on the list is a tie at nineteen between “Civil Rights and Liberties” and “Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement”. The Foreign Policy responses deal with issues pertaining to Sri Lanka, Venezuela, and the Middle East.

As I said before, it is the zeroes that intrigue me. Of the thirty-nine categories, there are six that have no official responses. It is possible that people have created petitions for one of these forgotten issues, but they have not crossed the signature threshold. Those issues are…

…Arts and Humanities;
…Climate Change;
…Disabilities;
…Labor;
…Poverty; and
…Urban Policy.

I certainly could read the above orphan categories to mean that it appears that the folks of the United States (at least, the cyber-capable members) do not care all that much about the arts, melting glaciers, the plight of the disadvantaged, workers, or cities.

I could also read the above list to mean that folks in the e-world see nothing wrong with the state of those forgotten issues and so do not need to petition the government for redress.

I wonder which reading is correct.

Governmental Gridlock

Once again I will be exploring the concept of the “do nothing” Congress, the charge levelled against the legislative branch of the United States government when people feel Congress hasn’t passed enough legislation, approved enough presidential nominations, or failed to even debate proposed laws.

The appellation of “Do Nothing” was first applied to the 80th Congress by President Harry S. Truman during the 1948 elections.

The charge of “Do Nothing” has been levelled against the most recent sessions of Congresses as both the 113th (here and here for examples) and the 112th (example here) have been accused of being even more lazy than the 80th.

However, is such a charge of do-nothingness even true or even reasonable?

Congress does much more than pass legislation, which is one way of measuring effectiveness. For all of the vitriol dumped against the 80th Congress, that legislative session did pass 906 public laws. For comparison, the 112th passed 283 and the 111th passed 383.

As part of its additional duties, Congress debates legislation, hold committee hearings and subcommittee hearings, and hears from their constituents.

There is also one part of the job of Representatives and Senators that could, in my estimation, be part of the reason why things are so gummed up over at the Capitol Building. Congress is inundated with communications from the Executive Branch. Granted, this is the fault of Congress as each one of the official communications that finds its way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol is required by federal law so if any Representative has any complaint, they only have themselves to blame.

I will use only one day from the Congressional Record as an example. On Friday, September 19, 2014, Congress received seventy-six letters from different agencies of the Executive Branch. I would fathom the guess that members of Congress are expected to read all of these missives (or at least the ones directed their committees and sub-committees).

So what are some of the things the executive agencies need to tell their legislative counterparts? Let’s take a look.

There is a letter from the Under Secretary for Rural Development, Department of Agriculture, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Eliminate the 6-Day Reservation Period Requirement for Rural Development Obligations (RIN: 0575-ZA01) received September 18, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Agriculture.

There is a letter from the Deputy Director, ODRM, Department of Health and Human Services, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; Annual Eligibility Redeterminations for Exchange Participation and Insurance Affordability Programs; Health Insurance Issuer Standards under the Affordable Care Act, Including Standards Related to Exchanges [CMS-9941-F] (RIN: 0938-AS32) received September 3, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

There is a letter from the Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs, Department of State, transmitting Transmittal No. DDTC 14-089, pursuant to the reporting requirements of Section 36(c) of the Arms Export Control Act; to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

There is a letter from the Chief, Branch of Endangered Species Listing, Department of the Interior, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Threatened Status for Oregon Spotted Frog [Docket No.: FWS-R1-ES-2013-0013] (RIN: 1018-AZ04) received September 19, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Natural Resources.

There is a letter from the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, NMFS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, transmitting the Administration’s final rule — Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; North and South Atlantic 2014 Commercial Swordfish Quotas [Docket No.: 000007123-4657-02] (RIN: 0648-BD96) received September 18, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Natural Resources.

Those are just five examples and you may have noticed something similar in all of the above correspondences. The item common to all of them is the phrase “pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A)”. So what does that mean?

That phrase is referencing the United States Civil Code – specifically Title 5 (Government Organization and Employees), Chapter 801 (Congressional Review), Section (a), Paragraph (1), Line (A) which basically states that before a new rule from a federal agency can take effect, that agency has to submit to Congress a copy of said rule.

Read that again.

Every rule. To Congress.

With all that mail to read, it’s more of a wonder why less isn’t done in the halls of Washington.