Hey folks, I have something important to share about how the United States federal government works. It’s public knowledge, but it’s not common knowledge… and it should be, because it’s quite possibly the most direct way for any individual citizen to have an impact on our government and laws.
First, a brief overview of the structure of the federal government. There are 3 branches: the legislative branch (Congress) makes the laws, the executive branch (President and agencies, e.g., EPA, DOJ, USDA, etc.) enforces the laws, and the judicial branch (SCOTUS and lower courts) interprets the laws.
What I want to share is what happens after Congress passes a law and the President signs it (or Congress overrides a Presidential veto). Legislation is often broad or high-altitude, setting a policy mandate without specifying the details. It’s up to the relevant federal agency to figure out the nuts and bolts. “For example, typically a legislature would pass a law mandating the establishment of safe drinking water standards, and then assign an agency to develop the list of contaminants and safe levels…” That process of figuring out the details is called “rulemaking” and it is, IMO, one of the most overlooked and misunderstood processes of our government.
IMPORTANT POINT 1: The public has an opportunity to comment on proposed rules and the agency is required to consider every comment it receives! This is not supposed to be a shady, hidden process. It’s often overlooked because many people and the media aren’t into the details and consider it boring. Rules open for public comment hardly ever make the news. Did you know that there are thousands of rules open for public comment right now?
IMPORTANT POINT 2: COMMENTING IS NOT THE SAME AS VOTING!!! Voting is essentially a popularity contest, and that’s how we commonly define civic participation. Rulemaking is a process in which data, research, expertise, and experience play a huge role. It’s not enough to be for or against the proposed rule. In this process, WHY matters. Reason and logic matter. Personal experience matters. A single comment that offers a thoughtful critique based on data and sound logic is worth more to the agency than all the “yes/no votes” put together.
Most people aren’t aware that rulemaking is different from voting. When the public does get word of a compelling rule open for comment, most people decide whether or not they like the rule based on what they read or see in media sources, then head for the phone or computer to tell the agency, “Yes, I’m in favor of this rule,” or, “No, I’m not in favor of this rule.” An agency can wind up with hundreds of thousands of comments like this, and they’re all trash!
Effective comments contribute something new to the process and include relevant “questions, concerns, ideas, data, and alternate proposals… [The agency] will pay particular attention to comments that
- contain new information or a new perspective
- respond to specific questions the agency asked in the [proposal]
- offer different ideas on how the agency can accomplish the goals Congress told it to accomplish”
Rulemaking is a fascinating process because a single comment can have an impact on the final outcome. It’s the quality of information and participation that makes a difference, not the quantity.
IMPORTANT POINT 3: The agency is most likely to get comments from industries and corporations that are directly affected by their rules. Why? Because they have people, usually lawyers, whose job it is to pay attention to the regulatory environment and try to influence the rules and regulations in their favor. Barring actual corruption, money can’t buy direct influence over the rule, but it can buy the time, attention, education, and skills of smart people. It’s difficult for the public to compete with these resources. I’d like to see this change, but that’s a conversation for another day. Given the current state of the rulemaking process, I’d like to remind you that agencies are required to consider every comment they receive and encourage you to participate whenever it’s important and relevant for you!
What can you do?
1. Decide what issues are important to you. Think about what parts of your personal or professional experience are important for an agency to consider.
2. Stay informed about rules that are open for comment. You can make a point to check https://www.regulations.gov/ regularly or follow the websites and social media accounts of agencies likely to make rules you care about. Another way to stay informed is to join organizations you support, such as the Sierra Club or Nature Conservancy; they will often share information about proposed rules and open comment periods with their members when those rules are relevant to the goals & interests of the organization.
3. Read the proposed rule. This is probably the most challenging step, as they tend to be long, dense, and not exactly entertaining. However, you can find others to discuss the proposal with. If you learned about the proposed rule from an organization you’re a member of, there are probably other members who would be interested in the discussion. You can also look on Reddit, which almost certainly has a relevant board (“subreddit”) for the issue, and if not there’s always https://www.reddit.com/r/regulations/
4. Comment while the public comment period is open!
PLEASE SHARE WIDELY!!
To learn more about rulemaking and effective commenting:
To find out what rules are currently open for public comment and to make your own comments: