Online Petitions Distract Congress From Real Issues

Fringe advocacy groups are able to get thousands of signatures with just a mouse click to petition on made-up issues.

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As the Washington Post's Jane Bryant Quinn reported back in 1999, "[E]ver since 1977, fund-raisers have fed on the notch. They send out letters, asking people to sign petitions to Congress (and, incidentally, enclose a check). They stir up resentment. They falsely tell people they're being discriminated against, based on the year they were born."

Thanks to these advocates, the notch issue still lives—even after a bipartisan Congressional commission concluded 20 years ago that "the Notch is a necessary and appropriate result of the 1977 legislation… and no legislative remedy is in order." Nevertheless, the "Notch Fairness Act" introduced by Rep. Ralph Hall, a Republican from Texas, in the last Congress garnered 118 cosponsors.

Nothing can or should stop groups from organizing petitions to Congress. This is a fundamental, First Amendment right. But professional petitioners are destructive to our political process in several ways.

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First, they exploit the legitimate desire of ordinary voters to have genuine impact on what's happening in Washington. Real citizens are clicking on petitions to lobby their members of Congress, and whatever the underlying merits of a particular petition might be, they are nonetheless tapping into people's well-intentioned civic impulses. The problem is that in some cases these impulses are being channeled toward the narrow ends of the petitioning organizations.

Second, the flood of canned E-mails pouring into congressional offices during a petition campaign can drown out the efforts of constituents who take real time in composing thoughts to their congressperson (rather than clicking on a button). Hill staffers take every communication from a constituent seriously—whether it's an E-mail petition or a handwritten note—and most offices require that constituents receive a response within a certain number of days. The sheer volume of E-mail petitions swallows up valuable staff time and leaves less time for individual cases.

Third, by crowding out real debates with made-up issues designed to fire up voters (and open their wallets), these groups are potentially crowding out work on issues of less ideological interest but more importance to the governance of the nation. What Congress ends up rewarding isn't genuine thought or a good idea but an eye-catching message and an effective infrastructure that can drive the greatest number of clicks. Petitions trivialize the process of setting Congress's agenda into something about as meaningful as a "like" on Facebook.

One possible way to deal with these impacts is to require more transparency. For example, the organizers of petition campaigns are now anonymous. Citizens sending a petition might choose to give their names (or at least an E-mail address) but the organizers of the petition are undisclosed.

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So why not, in the same way that sponsors of political ads are required to disclose themselves, require organizers of petition campaigns to disclose who they are as well? One option might be to require E-mail petitions to include a line at the bottom disclosing the organizing entity.

Another useful exercise might be to begin tracking the organizations that are promoting the various proposals "trending" on the Hill at any given time. Chances are, there's a petition campaign behind it, and it would be invaluable to members, their staffs, and the public to know which organizations are petitioning for what. That knowledge could help Congress "handicap" the various priorities that appear to be getting traction on the Hill. Part of the power that petition campaigns currently have right now is their seeming ability to materialize out of nowhere and in great numbers.

Many political reformers bemoan the influence of "special interests" who can demand such congressional largesse as tax breaks and lucrative government contracts.

But at least as pernicious, if not more, are the narrow interests that demand something even more valuable from Congress: their time and attention.