October 7, 2010

The Easiest Way to Get Involved in Government

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With the midterm elections approaching, energy is focused on how American citizens will play a role in determining the course of national policymaking. We go to the polls, we cast our votes and we go home. Perhaps some of us will write e-mails to our congressmen at some point, but for the most part, we see checking off a box in the voting booth as the way to get Washington to listen to us.

But there is another option we can utilize not once every two years, but every single day: submitting a comment to a federal agency.

Each year, almost 200 federal entities issue around 4,000 separate rules that affect our lives in every way imaginable. The air we breathe, the Internet we browse, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the schools we attend, the medical care we receive … All are governed by federal regulations.

Certainly, Congress enacts the broad outlines of the laws that govern us. However, most of the details are delegated to executive departments and agencies. The financial reform act passed over the summer requires 11 different agencies to make more than 240 new implementing regulations. The health care reform act contains 40 provisions that call for rulemakings.

So where does this leave us, the citizens, whose lives are affected by this tangle of regulations in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways? Four thousand times a year, we can influence the federal government’s decision-making. Few people even know the rulemaking process exists; fewer still know that ordinary people can submit their views directly to the agency. On top of that, agencies are required by law to read every single comment that the public submits and, even more importantly, to respond to any significant concerns or alternative proposals.

Want to tell the Federal Communications Commission what you think about applying open Internet rules to wireless devices that access the Internet? How about giving the Department of Energy a piece of your mind on energy conservation for washing machines? Do you have something to tell the Securities and Exchange Commission about disclosure for short-term borrowings?

Right now, all of these topics, as well as hundreds more, are the subject of regulations the federal government is trying to enact. Before an agency can enact a new rule, however, it must issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to let the public know what it wants to do and why. Then, for the next 30 to 90 days, anyone can submit a comment on a proposed rule. When this “notice and comment period” is over, the agency reads every single comment and decides what to do. When the agency publishes its final rule, it describes the alternative proposals that the public raised and why it chose not to adopt them, and it responds to any other concerns that came up during the notice and comment period.

To make a comment, go to www.regulations.gov and search for proposed rules. You can search by agency or keyword. So if you’re interested in protecting marine wildlife, you can search for “whales” or you look for what the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are currently proposing.

But before you go, here are a few things to keep in mind, to make sure what you tell the government is as effective as possible:

1. Rulemaking is not a vote. Agencies cannot just adopt a proposal because it was the most popular choice. If the problem the agency is trying to solve could be solved by a simple vote, Congress probably would have solved it, rather than telling the agency to figure it out.

2. Give reasons for your position. In the end, agencies have to explain to the public why they chose to take a particular path. If you give reasons for why you think they should take action, it makes your position more persuasive, and it helps the agency do its job.

3. Keep in mind that your ideal solution might not be on the table. An agency can only do what Congress allows it to do. Want part of the healthcare law thrown out? It does not matter how persuasively you argue your point to the Department of Health and Human Services. In the end, Congress has to make that call. HHS can, however, impact how the healthcare law is implemented. So read the proposed rule carefully and comment on its specific provisions.

If you want to learn more about rulemaking and how you can participate more effectively, visit Regulation Room, at http://regulationroom.org. Regulation Room is a project of the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative that seeks to increase public awareness of and involvement in the federal agency rulemaking process. Early next semester, the site will feature a new rule from the Department of Transportation. Until then, you can watch videos about rulemaking and read about recent DOT proposals. And you can always go to the aforementioned www.regulations.gov to find rulemakings you want to participate in. Happy commenting!

Rebecca Vernon graduated from Cornell Law School in 2010. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Rebecca Vernon