If enough people sign a petition on the White House website, the administration commits to issue a response.
That’s the promise of the “We the People” initiative, and it got a big boost this week when the White House responded favorably to a petition to legalize cell phone unlocking that had reached the 100,000 signature threshold the week before. The geekerati was beside itself, seemingly issuing one giant collective tweet: “We did it!”
Did what exactly?
A cynic might say that the White House did nothing more than score some easy political points. Its support for the measure was narrow and qualified, and it didn’t take any action besides signal it would look favorably on legislation. For that price the administration likely knew it would get some nice RTs.
Yet within hours members of Congress were tripping over themselves to introduce legislation. If nothing else, successful “We the People” petitions might serve as a good filter for popular causes to which politicians can pander.
The real test will come in the coming weeks and months when it will become clear if anything comes of the legislation, and whether the administration plans to do anything more than issue its response. Again, if nothing else, successful petitions might serve as a kickstart for otherwise latent movements.
I’m reserving judgment, but I can’t say I’m too optimistic.
For one thing, there are scores of petitions on the White House website that have successfully met their thresholds, but remain unanswered by the administration. Take for example two separate petitions to remove from office the prosecutors involved in the Aaron Swartz case. Each have received enough signatures to warrant a response, but it’s two months later and not a peep.
Two months is not a long time, but the administration responded to the cellphone unlocking petition in a week. There are also a couple of petitions demanding the labeling of genetically modified foods, one of them meeting the threshold in April of last year.
Some might say that before the White House raised the response threshold to 100,000 signatures, it had been overrun with somewhat silly petitions that it can’t be expected to get to right away. Yet the White House has found time to answer petitions to establish the lunar new year as a national holiday, to release the recipe for the Honey Ale home brewed at the White House, and of course, to build a Death Star.
No, I don’t think it’s lack of time that’s keeping them from answering the petition on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act that’s been sitting around since December.
Indeed, it’s not inconceivable that the administration just plain doesn’t plan on answering these. After all, it doesn’t have the greatest track record keeping its promises to be “the most transparent administration in history.”
When he was running for office in 2008, Barack Obama promised that his administration would make available online for five days all bills Congress passed before he would sign them. This would help solve the “we need to pass it to find out what’s in it” problem. Yet as Jim Harper of the Cato Institute has found, in his first term the President kept his promise only 62 percent of the time.
What the “We the People” website is missing is a little bit of accountability. For one thing, when you visit the site you can view open petitions, and you can view responses, but there’s no easy way to view a list of petitions that have met the threshold but remain unanswered. By putting this front and center the administration would signal that it’s serious about its petition program.
The site’s “Terms of Participation” also carves out a pretty big out for itself when it states,
To avoid the appearance of improper influence, the White House may decline to address certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government in its response to a petition.
That could apply to almost anything, but it’s understandable that there are certain matters—like the guilt or innocence of someone presently on trial—on which it would not be proper to comment. I suspect that many of the outstanding petitions may fit this category, in which case the White House should commit to responding by saying that it has no comment. That would be better than simply letting it twist in the wind.
In the meantime, here’s a petition you can sign that will never get an answer: Mr. President, Respond to Senator Rand Paul on Drone Strikes!