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The White House Program to Address Popular Petitions is Pretty Lame

"We the people," is one of the most sacred phrases in the American lexicon, right up there with "Play ball!" "In God we trust," and "Hi, my name is X and I'm an alcoholic." It heralds a revolutionary dispersal of power from the mighty to the many, and any savvy elected official should probably think twice before making it the cornerstone of a project that reduces a revered if mostly decorative passage of the Bill of Rights into a means for dispensing technocratic talking points. Whoops, too late.

Citing the First Amendment, which in part ensures us the "right to petition the government for a redress of grievances," the White House recently launched We The People, a new area on its website where individuals can demand that the Obama Administration "take action" on various issues. Sign up for an account, create a petition, and if enough of your fellow citizens sign it too, White House staffers will review it and "appropriate policy experts" will issue an official response. In other words, it's like Groupon for government. If an issue's popular enough to reach a tipping point — currently a petition must attract at least 25,000 signatures within 30 days — the White House will address it.

In its first month of operation, We The People attracted nearly more than 750,000 and generated approximately 12,500 petitions, 77 of which managed to attract enough signatures to guarantee a response. (When the tool first launched, the signature threshold was just 5000 signatures. Shortly thereafter, the signature threshold was raised to 25,000.) Already, the petitions have covered a wide range of issues. One demanded that the U.S. Army stop using monkeys in simulated chemical warfare attack exercises. Another called for the Obama Administration to forgive student loan debts. A third encouraged the White House to "immediately disclose the government's knowledge of any communications with extraterrestrial beings."

That last one passed the signature threshold and thus the White House dutifully answered it. "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race," said Phil Larson, a staffer in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

As it turns out, the right to petition guaranteed by the First Amendment is relatively toothless. In 1984, the Supreme Court opined that "nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court's case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to … petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to individuals' communications on public issues." So the fact that the Obama Administration is actually responding to these petitions means that it's going above and beyond the call of what the Bill of Rights promises, at least in the opinion of the Supreme Court. But do officiously bland letters from government bureaucrats really satisfy, even in a purely ornamental way, our desire to "redress grievances"?

In reply after reply, We The People promises "action" and delivers platitudes. It bills itself as "Your Voice in Our Government," but mostly features the voices of White House staffers and experts saying "No." When, in a matter of weeks, 151,400 people signed eight separate petitions asking the Obama Administration to legalize marijuana, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy explained that "marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment," and that the president's drug control strategy emphasizes "prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts."

If you're thinking this vital new tool of grassroots populism already sounds as boring as a press conference, it gets even better (or worse). While the new petition process has only resulted in 19 official responses so far, seven of those are "No comments." But will stonewalling and boilerplate policy statements in the place of genuine discourse (not to mention genuine action-taking) go over as well with the angry, disenfranchised public as it does with the professional journalists who accept such tactics in order to preserve some measure of ongoing access to the president and his spokespeople? "Actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening," reads the combative title of one current petition that has not quite met the 25,000-signature threshold. "We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition," exclaims a more jaundiced appeal. Such is the power of technology! In less than two months, we the people have already achieved the cynicism of grizzled reporters. No doubt the politicians love that.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun