A general view of the North Lawn of the White House in Washington (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
The Obama administration has touted the White House website’s ‘We the People’ section as a powerful platform for the American public to petition their government. According to a new report, however, those solicitations are all too rarely acknowledged.
“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,”United States President Barack Obama wrote on WhiteHouse.gov back in September 2011. He was unveiling at the time the website’s new ‘We the People’ feature, and said the addition of it would be“giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”
“Soon, anyone will be able to create or sign a petition at WhiteHouse.gov seeking action from the federal government on a range of issues,” senior advisor David Plouffe added at the time. “If a petition gathers enough signatures, the White House staff will review it, make sure it gets to Obama Administration policy experts and issue an official response.”
But 27 months later, an investigation conducted by federal technology site NextGov has revealed that many of the petitions that have met the criteria needed for a response have been long ignored by the administration — including at least one that’s been in limbo for over two years.
“There are currently 30 We the People petitions that have crossed the threshold for an official White House reply but not yet gotten one, including eight that have been waiting more than one year,” Joseph Marks wrote for NextGov on Thursday this week.
On average, Marks added, those petitions have been waiting around 10 months apiece so far for a response.
In the two-plus years since being launched, the White House has undoubtedly been aware of the popularity of the We the People section of its site. Originally the administration required that petitions receive only 5,000 signatures to warrant a response, and then raised that threshold to 25,000 autographs and eventually 100,000.
The White House has responded to 134 requests since Sept. 2011—or around five a month. But 30 petitions that surpassed the signature threshold still remain unanswered, including some that accumulated far more digital autographs than necessary.
A petition demanding labels for all genetically modified foods, for example, was created within days of the site’s launch and needed to get the support of only 5,000 people to provoke a response. When that deadline passed 30 days later, it had been signed by more than 51,000 people. And while two states — Connecticut and Maine — have each managed to vote in favor of GMO label laws during that span, the White House has failed to even issue a cookie-cutter response, according to NextGov’s report.
When computer prodigy Aaron Swartz committed suicide last January amid a federal court case surrounding hacking charges, the prosecution was quickly condemned by many with allegations of prosecutorial overreach. Within days of his death a petition was launched asking Pres. Obama to remove from office Carmen Ortiz, the US attorney for Massachusetts who prosecuted Swartz. That petition was signed by more than double the 25,000 signatures it needed then, but the White House has stayed silent. A separate petition asking for the termination of Assistant US Attorney for Massachusetts Stephen Heymann also accumulated enough signatures for a response, but the White House remains quiet 11 months later.
“The White House plans to respond to each petition that crosses the signature threshold,” the We the People site still reads today. “We will do our best to respond to petitions that cross the signature threshold in a timely fashion, however, depending on the topic and the overall volume of petitions from We the People, responses may be delayed.”
“Among the reasons for raising the threshold, the White House cited a desire to provide timelier and higher quality petition responses,” Marks wrote for NextGov. “Unanswered petitions posted after the threshold hike have been waiting 103 days for a response on average.”
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