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

[11-28-16 Update This petition was closed 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.]

[10-24-20 Update I am now in the process of updating this petition for the purpose of reactivating it for use in conjunction with a new petition that will be activated soon: 21st Century Democracy. My focus is on deleting sections that are no longer applicable, as well as making sure that all the links are still operable. Otherwise, this petition will remain the same as it was when it was originally activated in early 2016.]

[This background section is extremely long, so take a look at just the 5 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 in conjunction with e-petitions, and why it's in our best interests to have a similar system 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. [NOTE: This system only operates in the White House. There is no such system currently operating in the U.S. Congress.)

  • 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).

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 15 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 six 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; Czech Republic; Germany; Scotland; Singapore; 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.

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 supportive 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 having a joint Senate & House of Representatives Petitions Committee, or separate committees in the Senate and House would best serve the interests of their fellow citizens.

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 27 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 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 another member of that same EU committee:

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 20 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 2012 video, some members of the Obama White House staff were already functioning very much like a formally appointed committee.) There are a lot of good reasons I could give. But these two alone should probably be enough:

FIRST: Although Presidents exert a significant amount of influence over our country's policies, especially regarding foreign affairs, their power pales in relation to that exerted by members of Congress. For it is there that the laws governing our nation are made. So that is where our attention should be focused.

SECOND: If the establishment of an e-petitions system and one or more petitions committees is truly in our best interests, it is best to have them situated where they are most likely to become permanent fixtures of our government. The White House system was established voluntarily by President Obama, and there is no legal requirement for any of his successors to retain it. Indeed, the Trump Administration has only gone through the motions of maintaining it. A congressional system, on the other hand, 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 is the equivalent of our country's Constitution) not only guarantees the right to petition, but it also requires 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.

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 20 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 level of deep distrust that has developed between citizens and those they elect to represent them (1, 2). And judging by how pleased the Scottish petitioners in the following 2013 video obviously were, I'm confident that helping to bridge that divide is one area in which a congressional petitions committee will be virtually guaranteed of success. [Note: Because Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, its legislature is limited to dealing with issues that are more similar to those addressed by our state and local governments than to those that fall under the authority of Congress.)

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.