#Government
Target:
The United States Congress
Region:
United States of America

[11-28-16 Update From Petition's Author: I closed this petition on January 7th, with a commitment to revise and reactivate it prior to this year's "November 8th federal election." I apologize for not having followed through with that commitment, but most of my time since then has been devoted to caring for a terminally ill family member. I am now attempting to turn the task of revising and reactivating this petition over to students at the University of Florida, with a target date of activation in early 2017. And if I'm successful, a link to their new version will be provided on this page as soon as it is ready.]

[This background section is extremely long, so take a look at just the 6 embedded videos (as well as the paragraph immediately above each one) if you're pressed for time. None of them lasts longer than 5 minutes, and they contain enough information to give you a good idea of what public petitions committees are, how they operate, and why it's in our best interests to have one established in our United States Congress.]

So that you can see right away what you are being asked to sign, a copy of the petition is provided immediately below. Anyone wishing to add their signature should scroll down to the original at the bottom of the page.

Please Create a Petitions Commission

We urge you to pass legislation this year creating a joint Senate and House of Representatives Petitions Commission. Its objective will be to make recommendations to Congress concerning the establishment and operation of a congressional petitions committee and e-petitions system.

Elected representatives in many other national legislatures have already provided their fellow citizens with these participatory democracy reforms, and we believe the time is long overdue for you to do the same for us.

(End of Petition)

If you have ever signed a paper or e-petition to Congress and never heard another thing about it, you have an inkling of just how disorganized and discouraging the entire congressional petitioning process has always been. And you would undoubtedly find it welcome news if someone told you that in the near future:

  • A bipartisan petitions committee and e-petitions system would be established in Congress.

  • Every e-petition submitted in their new system would be expeditiously reviewed.

  • If it met the committee's criteria for acceptance, it would immediately become one of their website's active petitions. And the petition's author would be given its URL (complete web address), so that it could be more easily publicized and its progress tracked. On the other hand, the petition's author would be notified if the petition was rejected. And the reason(s) for its disqualification would be clearly explained.

  • If a petition acquired an established minimum number of signatures, those who submitted it would be contacted and (in many cases) given an opportunity to appear before the committee to discuss the issue(s) involved. And whether or not the petitioners appeared before the committee, their petition would be given an official response that would be permanently posted online in a manner similar to what has been done since 2011 by the UK's Parliament, as well as here in the U.S. by President Obama's and President Trump's Administrations (not Congress, which has the primary responsibility for passing legislation).

  • This bipartisan committee would probably have a lot more women on it than their meager 19.4% share of seats in Congress would indicate. That is, assuming that membership on such a committee proved to be as attractive to them as it has been with female members of the European Parliament, as well as many national legislatures around the world. There has also been a distinct shortage of women appearing before congressional committees. According to this 2014 analysis, less than 1/4 of those testifying before the House of Representatives have been women. That low participation rate admittedly can't be attributed solely to the under-representation of women in congressional committees. However, it stands to reason that the higher the percentage of women on these committees, the more women that would be invited to testify before them. And hopefully, if the input to congressional committees is broadened in this way, the resulting policy recommendations will be more attuned to the needs of our country as a whole.

  • This committee would also probably have a powerful attraction for those members of Congress who are outspoken advocates for making our political system more responsive to the needs of the American people. To get an idea of how much more impact such individuals could potentially have as members of a bipartisan petitions committee, take a look at the following videos of Senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat) and Representative Paul Ryan (Republican).

{NOTE: If the sound doesn't work for the above video, then copy its URL (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=_b0obdnXfqg), and try it yourself. And the same goes for this closed petition's other videos.}

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=C-PT94rbEgo)

Well, guess what? Having Congress provide us with such a petitions committee and e-petitions system isn't some sort of pipe dream. Legislatures in a number of other countries have been operating similar ones for years. Take the Federal Republic of Germany, for example. For the past 13 years, if an e-petition on the official government petition site accumulates at least 50,000 signatures during its first 4 weeks, "the parliamentary commission for petitions usually holds a public debate on the issue, whereby the petitioner is invited and has the possibility to present his or her arguments before the delegates." And for a more recent example, here's the policy that Luxembourg established four years ago: "If a petition garners 4,500 signatures or more in this time (6 weeks), parliamentary committees are bound by law to hold a public debate with the ministers concerned and a maximum of six petitioners."

Here is a look at the membership of some of the public petitions committees in other parts of the world. It is limited to those committees which have photos of their members readily available online, so it's much shorter than a complete list of such committees would be: Australia; Bulgaria; Czech Republic; Germany; Israel; Scotland; Singapore; South Africa; the United Kingdom; and the huge one in the European Parliament. It should be noted that some petitions committees provide and oversee the operation of e-petitions systems, while others do not.

You may have noticed that many of these committees have attracted a far higher percentage of women than one might expect in national legislatures, which have traditionally been dominated by men. Indeed, when compared to this list of the proportion of women in national parliaments, the higher percentage is quite surprising in some cases.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a new petitions committee in our Congress would follow the same trend. However, if one takes a look at the impressive backgrounds of just about every one of the 104 women currently serving in Congress, it becomes difficult to imagine very many of them not trying to make the most of their congressional careers by seeking membership in such a potentially powerful new committee. Judge for yourself regarding the 14 newest female members of Congress. Here are links to the official government web pages for the 2 new female members of the Senate: Shelley Moore Capito and Joni Ernst. And here are the links for the 12 new female members of the House of Representatives: Alma Adams, Barbara Comstock, Debbie Dingell, (Gwen Graham chose not to run for reelection in 2016), Brenda Lawrence, Mia Love, Martha McSally, Kathleen Rice, Elise Stefanik, Norma Torres, Mimi Walters, and Bonnie Watson Coleman.

Now for an examination of what has been taking place in the UK, where ongoing efforts to improve their Parliament's petitions system might very well end up producing what will arguably be the best in the world.

In 2011, the UK's Parliament launched an e-petitions system in which those acquiring at least 100,000 signatures would be "eligible for debate in the House of Commons." And it quickly became so popular that, as this summary of its first 100 days states: "Of the six e-petitions which have passed the 100,000 threshold, two have been debated (the London riots and Hillsborough petitions), two are scheduled to be debated (Fuel Duty and Babar Ahmad – as part of a wider extradition debate) and one has been accepted for debate but will not be scheduled until the new year (Immigration)." And it has remained popular enough for the last 5 years that in March, 2015 it was stated that, "Since the launch of the Government’s e-petitions site, more than 3.7 million individuals have given their support to the 37 petitions that reached the qualifying 100,000 signature threshold for debate. The topics of 32 have been the subject of debate in the House of Commons, most as a direct result of the e-petition."

That e-petitions system was recently changed to one overseen by a newly created petitions committee. Although the threshold of 100,000 might wind up being adjusted, the most important part of the old system will be retained: petitions acquiring a significant number of signatures will still be "considered for debate in the House (of Commons)." However, it is no longer left up to individual members of Parliament to sponsor a petition and recommend that it be scheduled for a debate. That responsibility now belongs to the Petitions Committee, which is also empowered to support the petitioning process in a number of other ways: ask for more information in writing—from petitioners, the Government, or other relevant people or organisations; ask for more information in person—from petitioners, the Government, or other relevant people or organisations; write to the Government or another public body to press for action on a petition; and ask another parliamentary committee to look into the topic raised by a petition.

Meanwhile, what sort of system for submitting petitions does our own Congress have?

Search as you will, you'll find that there is virtually no official system at all. And it's not as though there were something in our modern North American culture that creates an aversion to instituting such forms of participatory democracy. Even our neighbor to the north, Canada (although it also still doesn't have a petitions committee), has at least been providing its fellow citizens with an e-petitions system since 2015.

To put in perspective just how unfriendly and discouraging the process for submitting petitions to Congress has been in our country, it's useful to note that in 1984 the Supreme Court held that "Nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court's case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to speak, associate, and petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to communications of members of the public on public issues." Although this started out as a local case (Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v. Knight), it pretty well encapsulates what citizens have been faced with when petitioning Congress.

So here we are, without official standards to go by in preparing petitions; and not only must we determine which member(s) of Congress to present them to, but also when, where, and how they should be presented. And now that we're in the age of television, home videos, cell phones, the Internet, and social media, this has naturally led to a wide variety of both cooperative and confrontational scenes of citizens presenting petitions to members of Congress. But either way, they normally amount to little more than isolated publicity stunts. The type of ongoing, respectful, and potentially productive interaction with a group of nonpartisan (or at least bipartisan) members of Congress that a petitions committee would offer—especially one with a large and diverse membership—has been noticeably absent.

As the author of this petition, and as someone who has written a few petitions and signed thousands more during his lifetime, I'm tempted to declare "CASE CLOSED" at this point. However, I know that I've always been very reluctant to sign a petition before I have a firm grasp of the information and issues related to it—no matter how worthy the goal of the petition, or how simple and unambiguous its wording might be. And because I assume that most of you feel the same way, the remainder of this background section will be devoted to explaining some aspects of the petition in more detail.

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND INFORMATION

1. Here is proof that neither our Senate nor House of Representatives already has a petitions committee.

2. The reason for requesting a "joint" commission is that one of the key issues its members will have to contend with is determining whether a Senate, House of Representatives, or joint Senate & House Petitions Committee would best serve the interests of their fellow citizens. And there is even a fourth option of separate petitions committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives for them to consider, although it seems very unlikely judging by how few other countries have gone that route. India provides one of the few examples, with a petitions committee in its Council of States (Rajya Sabha) and another in its House of the People (Lok Sabha).

3. As to how this new congressional petitions system might operate, take a look at the following 2012 video about the petitions committee in the European Union (EU). It provides an excellent example because it has been functioning effectively for many years, and has managed to do so in spite of having to contend with the incredible linguistic and cultural barriers that exist among the EU's 28 member countries. Any problems that might be faced by a petitions committee in our Congress pale by comparison. Another great reason for using this video as an example is that it shows just how effective a petitions committee can sometimes be: The petition featured in it was instrumental in bringing about an "historic victory for people power."

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lvI4QG5AOk)

As stated in the above video, "The Petitions Committee's goal is simple, to draw attention to a particular problem and open a debate." Although it's rarely stated so clearly, that just about sums up the main purpose of every other public petitions committee around the world as well. Bear in mind, however, that these committees vary widely in their scope, operating procedures, and powers. Also bear in mind that there probably isn't a single one of them which is so good that we should simply copy it. That's why this petition calls for a commission tasked with making recommendations as the first step, rather than simply asking Congress to pass legislation that would establish these two participatory democracy reform measures right away.

4. Because it will be such a critical factor in determining how beneficial a congressional petitions committee might be for our country, it's important to delve more deeply into what kind of senator or representative is likely to seek membership in it. From what I've seen while researching public petitions committees around the world, there's only one thing I know for sure: The idealism and enthusiasm that you saw displayed in the video about the European Union's Petitions Committee, especially by the lady who chaired the Committee at that time, are by no means uncommon traits among petitions committee members. For example, take a look at this video of the current Committee Chair, as well as the following video of another member of that committee. There are most assuredly a number of other personal qualities we might hope for in members of a congressional petitions committee. However, the beneficial effects of these two qualities alone will probably be enough to make most of us wonder why we didn't urge Congress to create a petitions committee and e-petitions system 15 or 20 years ago!

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKwv1YUlrQA)

It's entirely possible that if due consideration is given by the commission to the size and makeup of a congressional petitions committee, it will attract a significant number of such highly motivated public servants. And if that happens, our Congress could very well end up with such an outstanding petitions committee that it will inspire the creation of 50 more in our state legislatures.

5. "Long overdue" refers to the fact that neither of the congressional reforms we are requesting are new innovations. Indeed, public petitions committees have existed (in one form or another) for centuries. For example, a journal entry from New Zealand's House of Representatives mentions one in 1877. And turning the clock back three more centuries, a "Committee of Grievances, to which petitions were referred," was appointed by England's House of Commons in 1571.

E-petitions systems naturally don't date back nearly so far, with the Scottish Parliament claiming the title of "the first legislature in the world to accept e-petitions" just 16 years ago. Nonetheless, it's still hard to understand why the national legislature of the country that produced technology giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Intel, IBM, and Microsoft has yet to seriously consider installing a similar system. And it's even harder to understand why our Congress hasn't done so since 2011, when the Obama White House led the way by creating its own e-petitions system.

6. Now that the existence of the White House e-petitions system has been mentioned again, it's a good time to explain why we still need to have a separate congressional one. And it's also a good time to explain why we need to have a separate congressional petitions committee as well. (As you can see in this video, some members of the White House staff have already been functioning very much like a formally appointed committee.) So here are three of the most important reasons why it's in our best interests to have a public petitions committee and e-petitions system in Congress, whether or not there is one in the White House:

FIRST: If they are worth having at all, it is best to have them situated where they are most likely to become permanent fixtures of our government. And whereas the White House system was established voluntarily and can be terminated by President Obama or any of his successors whenever they wish, a congressional system would almost surely be mandated and funded by legislation—and therefore much more difficult to eliminate once we the people grew accustomed to its availability. The Federal Republic of Germany provides a good example. Its Basic Law (which became effective in 1949, and is the equivalent of our country's Constitution) not only guaranteed the right of petition, but also required the establishment of a Petitions Committee:

(1) The Bundestag shall appoint a Petitions Committee to deal with requests and complaints addressed to the Bundestag pursuant to Article 17.

(2) The powers of the Committee to consider complaints shall be regulated by a federal law.

And in case anyone thinks it's highly unlikely that the White House system will ever be removed, consider what happened not too long ago in the United Kingdom. Their Prime Minister's office launched an impressive e-petitions system in 2006, only to have it discontinued following the election of another Prime Minister in 2010. Fortunately, it was replaced by the one the UK Parliament established in 2011. And that system is obviously here to stay, as evidenced by the extensive improvements being made to it that were described earlier. I believe it would be extremely foolish, however, to assume that the same transition will eventually occur in our own country without a great deal of well-organized public pressure.

SECOND: Presidents have always tended to be polarizing figures, and it's gotten decidedly worse in recent years. Indeed, it's gotten so bad that 52% of the votes cast in the 2014 midterm election were meant to "send a message" of opposition or support for Obama, despite the fact that his name wasn't even on the ballot! This polarization inevitably turns any White House petition site into a lightning rod for attracting political extremists, as well as just about anybody else with an ax to grind.

The resulting petitions are often very partisan and personal, such as this one submitted one year after the site was launched—right after President Obama won election for his second term. The same sort of thing happened during the UK's 4-year experiment with the petition site run by their Prime Minister's office, as can be seen by the over 72,000 signatures on a petition calling for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign. And the polarization doesn't seem to get any better, no matter how long a president serves in office, as evidenced by the one accusing him of treason that was submitted in March, 2015. The threshold for requiring a response had been raised to 100,000 since the first example, so this one's 31,356 signature total meant the White House could ignore it. However, it was still prominently featured for a month, discouraging political independents and moderates in both major parties from having anything to do with the petition site.

Add to this the fact that a disproportionate number of the most popular petitions deal with legal and foreign affairs issues that are of little interest to the general public, which is a direct result of the President being the head of our federal government's executive branch. This gives most newcomers to the site little reason to ever make a return visit. The end result is that such petition sites tend to be very poor indicators of public opinion because they represent the views of very narrow segments of the population—much more so than nonpartisan sites run by legislative branches have proven themselves capable of doing.

That narrowness also detracts from the potential impact of executive branch petitions because of the relatively small number of signatures they acquire. After nearly 4 full years of operation, for example, the top two White House petitions both fell short of 400,000 signatures. Now compare that to the 2,8 million who signed the Anti-ACTA petition that was featured in the 2012 video shown earlier, or the over 16,000 in Wales (with a population that's only 1% of our own) who were acclaimed in this 2009 video for signing a petition to their Parliament.

THIRD: Because Presidents must oversee the operation of so many Government Departments and Agencies, there is a natural tendency for the maintenance and operation of a voluntarily created e-petition system to become a very low priority. And that tendency revealed itself in a number of ways during the White House petition site's first years of operation. Some were simply annoying, such as seeing signature totals for some petitions get drastically reduced overnight and having no explanations posted. Several others were so discouraging and downright insulting to hundreds of thousands of petitioners, however, that they largely negated all the positive effects of providing the petition site. And the worst part is that some of them are still occurring now, almost 4 full years after the first e-petitions were received by the White House.

First off, numerous petitions have accrued signatures for days or weeks on end, only to be officially "removed from the site under our Moderation Policy because it is in violation of our Terms of Participation." And at least one of them had already qualified for a response by accruing over 100,000 signatures before it was removed!

Secondly, there are the incredible waiting times for responses to many petitions, in spite of the fact that the site's main attraction since the day it was launched has been the pledge that, "if a petition gathers enough online signatures, it will be reviewed by policy experts and you’ll receive an official response." And although the size of the backlog has been reduced recently, there are still six petitions that have been waiting over two years for a response at the time of this writing. And the petition in that group with the longest waiting time had been submitted just one day after the White House petition site was launched on September 22, 2011!

It's unimaginable that members of a petitions committee in Congress would ever allow such things to happen. Even if common decency and respect for their fellow citizens weren't enough to preclude it, then their instinct for political survival would. After all, unlike Presidents who are limited to 2 terms in office, most of them would be running for reelection every 2 years (House of Representatives) or 6 years (Senate). The majority of them therefore have a strong incentive to avoid offending any large bloc of voters, especially with recurring problems that never should have occurred in the first place.

[10-30-15 UPDATE: It turns out that just two weeks after this petition was launched, major improvements were made to the White House's petition site. Most importantly, the White House responded to "every petition in our We the People backlog  —  20 in all —  re-affirming its commitment to the petitions platform," and made the following commitment for the future: "if a petition meets the signature goal within a designated period of time, we will aim to respond to it  —  with an update or policy statement — within 60 days wherever possible."]

7. As to whether or not petitions have ever actually brought about real changes in our society, take a look at what a class of fourth graders accomplished in this 2012 article. Unfortunately, getting members of Congress to act is rarely so simple as using a petition to shame them, "with the online equivalent of a tarring and feathering." This White House petition to "Make Unlocking Cell Phones Legal" provides a good example. It got the ball rolling when it was submitted in January, 2012, but it took 2 years of intense lobbying by a group of dedicated "citizen lobbyists" before legislation was passed and signed into law.

The point is that we shouldn't expect miracles from a petitions committee and congressional e-petitions system. Their main purpose is to give us a quick and relatively easy way to temporarily put issues on the agenda in our nation's capital, but that will probably only be enough (by itself) to have a lasting impact on rare occasions. In spite of that, it will still be a heck of a lot better system than what we've had in the past!

I don't know about you, but I'd consider this new petitioning system to be a resounding success if 10 or 15 years from now a congressional leaflet on petitioning could say, "Petitions have brought about changes in the law, in government policy, the production of revised guidelines on an issue, a change in a decision. Even just raising awareness of the issue in Congress can be a success." With the exception of my having substituted "Congress" for "the Parliament," that's a direct quote from this leaflet on petitioning Scotland's Parliament—whose members can proudly boast that 18 years ago they became "the first legislature in the world to accept e-petitions." Another very important gauge of success for such a petitioning system, especially one that has been around for so many years, is how effective it has been in bridging the seemingly intractable divide/disconnect (1, 2) that has developed between most citizens and those elected to represent them. And judging by how pleased the Scottish petitioners in the following 2013 video obviously have been, I'm confident that helping to bridge that divide is one area in which a congressional petitions committee will be virtually guaranteed of success. (Notes: 1. This video's volume is annoyingly low at certain points, so don't blame your speaker(s) or your ears if you have a hard time hearing something. 2. Because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, its legislature is limited to dealing with issues that tend to be more similar to those addressed by our state and local governments than to those that fall under the authority of Congress.)

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-G6M276wNBA)

8. Before deciding whether or not to follow Scotland's 18-year lead by urging Congress to establish a petitions committee and e-petitions system, there is an important question that each of us needs to consider: Is it reasonable to expect that these new participatory democracy reforms will be capable of having a major impact on the outcome of major policy decisions, or will they simply become two more of the many largely ineffective means that we the people already employ in our never-ending struggle to make our voices heard?

For me, the answer is that they have the potential to become far more effective than all the others put together. And here is a specific example to prove my point: I believe that the votes on 10 & 11 October, 2002 (House, Senate) for and against H J RES 114 (Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002) would have turned out quite differently if millions of us had signed a congressional e-petition similar to the following fictitious one:

Petition to the United States Congress

According to a September 20th NY Times editorial, "Congress seems all but ready to sign off on an omnibus resolution proposed yesterday by President Bush that would authorize the use of force against Iraq, even in the absence of United Nations support."

We firmly believe that votes for legislation that could have a major impact on the lives of your fellow citizens, especially regarding matters of war and peace, should never be rushed into unless it's absolutely necessary. And the evidence that has been made available to the public in this case certainly doesn't justify a hasty debate and vote.

We also believe that in order to prevent political considerations from overwhelming reason and common sense regarding such vitally important matters, members of Congress should avoid scheduling votes on them this close to a federal election. And judging by the following excerpt from the same NY Times' editorial, this legislation has already become overly politicized:

"The newly bellicose mood on Capitol Hill materialized almost overnight. Last week, Democrats wanted the Security Council to act first and were calling for measured consideration of the political and military issues involved in going to war. The haste is unfortunate, all the more so because it is clearly motivated by campaign politics. Republicans are already running attack ads against Democrats on Iraq. Democrats favor fast approval of a resolution so they can change the subject to domestic economic problems."

We therefore urge you not to schedule a vote on authorizing the use of force against Iraq until after the upcoming November 5th, 2002 election.

(End of Sample Petition)

You don't have to be a political scientist to know that the biggest mistake members of Congress want to avoid making shortly before an election is to antagonize any voters unnecessarily. And because postponing the vote for 4 weeks was by no means an unreasonable request, the odds are that an e-petition like this one would have been successful—especially if it had amassed millions of signatures during the 3 weeks before Congress actually voted on the legislation. There's no way to know for sure if delaying the vote until after the election would have changed any of the votes cast. However, it would almost certainly have encouraged other concerned citizens to write and/or support petitions aimed at slowing down the rush to war in other ways, or even derailing it altogether.

Now take a look at the following October 10, 2002 video of the weary-looking leader of the opposition in the Senate (Robert Byrd), who was also the author of the "rush to war" editorial cited above. He was making one last attempt to convince his fellow senators to vote against the Iraq War Resolution that a bipartisan majority of them ended up passing the following day.

I can't help but think that if Congress had created an e-petitions system and petitions committee 2 years earlier (when Scotland did), Senator Byrd would almost surely have had millions of petition signatures to back him up. That alone would probably have been enough to convince members of the Senate to at least postpone their rushed and highly politicized vote until after that year's congressional election, which would take place in less than a month. How might their vote on that legislation have turned out then—especially if like-minded members of a petitions committee had also been available to speak out against it (both publicly and in Congress)? And what if one of those committee members had been as skilled and persuasive as Elizabeth Warren, who has been described as having, "the unique ability, especially for a non-presidential candidate, to put an issue on the map!"

(https://www.c-span.org/video/standalone/?c4457228/senator-byrd-iraq-war-resolution)

END OF BACKGROUND SECTION

Please Create a Petitions Commission

We urge you to pass legislation this year creating a joint Senate and House of Representatives Petitions Commission. Its objective will be to make recommendations to Congress concerning the establishment and operation of a congressional petitions committee and e-petitions system.

Elected representatives in many other national legislatures have already provided their fellow citizens with these participatory democracy reforms, and we believe the time is long overdue for you to do the same for us.

The Please Create a Petitions Commission petition to The United States Congress was written by Tom Foreman and is in the category Government at GoPetition.