Here are the 30 questions the White House doesn’t seem to want to answer

August 13, 2013
(Whitehouse.gov)
(Whitehouse.gov)

The White House launched the We The People petition site in 2011 as a way for Americans to get their government to respond to their calls for action. On the digital platform, people can create and sign petitions seeking specific action on an issue from the federal government. In theory, once a petition has garnered a certain number of signatures within a certain time frame, it is reviewed by White House staff and receives an official response.

But that's not always what happens.

Now a new site, www.whpetitions.info, takes its own tally and highlights petitions that have received enough signatures but have not received responses. By its count, the White House has responded to 87 percent of petitions that have met their signature thresholds with an average response time of 61 days. But the average waiting time so far for the 30 unanswered petitions is 240 days. And six of them have been waiting for over a year.

Eli Dourado, a research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, told The Switch that he built the site because he thought the lack of a list of successful petitions awaiting a reply was a "glaring omission" from the We The People site. While the White House site shows petitions that are accumulating signatures and responses, in between, Dourado says, there is "a purgatory" where petitions that the Obama administration doesn't want to answer can disappear.

According to the We The People FAQ, the White House "plans to respond to each petition that crosses the signature threshold" that complies with the Terms of Participation. Those terms note the White House may decline to respond if a petition addresses "certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government."

Considering some of those exiled petitions, leaving some of them unanswered might be understandable. Many seem as if they're driven by signers outside the United States, like  "Persuade South Korea (The ROK) to accept Japan's proposal on territorial dispute over islets" or "Provide necessary assistance to prevent Taiwanese people from being murdered by Philippines and rebuild friendship."

But it's curious that the White House responded to a joke Death Star petition, while these serious and successful petitions haven't received even a perfunctory nod:

End the Military’s Discrimination against Non-Religious Service Members. 23,549 signatures. Threshold: 5,000. Waiting for a response since Oct 31, 2011.

"The US military fails to provide Equal Opportunity for non-religious service members. We are forced to participate in religious rituals during official ceremonies. This is not free exercise, this is forced exercise. Worship belongs in voluntary services, not in mandatory formations. This is unconstitutional establishment of an official preference for religion over non-religion. We are forced to take an unconstitutional religious test for “Spiritual Fitness”. Those who fail the test are forced to take remedial training instructing them to go to church and pray. This proselytization by the US military is forced onto us against our will. These policies create a hostile environment, division, and resentment within the military, destroying morale and threatening national security."

Not Allow The FDA To Regulate Premium Cigars. 38,360 signatures. Threshold: 25,000. Waiting for a response since May 11, 2012.

"Dear Mr. President: The FDA is considering the creation of regulations for the premium cigar industry. These regulations will jeopardize over 85,000 American jobs, destroy America’s “mom & pop” premium cigar retailers & manufacturers, and risk over 250,000 jobs in Latin American that produce cigars, impacting the economic/political stability in the region. We hope you will stand up for small businesses that dot Main Street America & recognize that premium cigars are enjoyed by adults, are not addictive and therefore do not conform to the Congressional intent of the Family Smoking Prevention & Tobacco Control Act. Tell the FDA to leave our premium cigars alone. With this nation's more pressing issues, harming my simple ability to enjoy a cigar should not be a priority of the government."

Support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods (GMOs). 86,660 signatures. Threshold: 25,000. Waiting for a response since May 12, 2012.

"We have a right to know how the food we eat and feed our families is produced, but under current FDA regulations, we don’t have that ability when it comes to genetically engineered foods (GMOs). More than forty countries, including Russia and China, already require labels on genetically engineered foods. And a recent poll found that nearly all Democrats (93%), Independents (90%), and Republicans (89%) support labeling of GMOs. At a time when partisan rancor dominates the public conversation, there are few topics that can muster such overwhelming support. And although over 1 million people submitted comments in favor of labeling, the FDA has yet to act. President Obama, please listen to the American public and speak out in favor of the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods."

Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz. 57,615 signatures. Threshold: 25,000. Waiting for a response since Feb 11, 2013.

"It is too late to do anything for Aaron Swartz, but the [sic] who used the powers granted to them by their office to hound him into a position where he was facing a ruinous trial, life in prison and the ignominy and shame of being a convicted felon; for an alleged crime that the supposed victims did not wish to prosecute. A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path."

Prevent the FDA from regulating or banning the sale and use of electronic cigarettes, accessories and associated liquids. 31,018 signatures. Threshold: 25,000. Waiting for a response since Feb 13, 2013.

"The FDA has repeatedly stated its intent to propose a “deeming” regulation to apply Chapter IX of the FSPTCA to e-cigarettes. But Sections 905 and 910 would ban all e-cigarettes, and other provisions of Chapter IX would also decimate the e-cigarette industry, protect cigarette markets and otherwise threaten public health. The FDA should NOT propose or approve any regulation that would deny cigarette smokers legal or affordable access to less hazardous smokefree alternatives. ~ Bill Godshall E-cigarettes and associated accessories and liquids are less hazardous than cigarettes and can reduce the risks of smoking. With the use of these devices millions have successfully reduced the use of cigarettes. Don't let the FDA deny us access to these alternatives to smoking."

See the rest of the 30 petitions that have met the threshhold and are awaiting a response from the White House at whpetitions.info.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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