White House Ramps Up E-Petition Responses

The White House has boosted its rate of responses to We the People petitions after a slow start, posting nine responses in the past week.

Five of the responses are refusals to comment on legal cases, including cases against American Indian activist Leonard Peltier and accused Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning, or on investigations including one seeking an investigation into the Church of Scientology.

Several others, though, give a sense of White House engagement with petitioners if not evidence any of the petitions has led to a genuine policy change or a shift in administration thinking.

This response to a petition asking the White House to reject the TransCanada company's Keystone XL Pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas, essentially quotes from a State Department decision to delay and re-route the pipeline, which environmentalists fear could lead to oil spills and increased carbon emissions.

This response explains the Army has stopped using monkeys to test the skills of medical staff responding to a nerve agent attack, though the change in policy appears to have been made about a week before the petition seeking an end to the practice was posted.

Perhaps the best evidence petitioners may have affected agency thinking is in this response to a petition seeking more humane treatment for wild horses and burros, which are often gathered up by the Interior Department and held in warehouses.

The lengthy response from Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey acknowledges the current method of controlling wild horse and burro populations is unsustainable and commits to developing a new strategy relying on public input. The change in policy was also spurred by a negative report from the Government Accountability Office, according to Abbey's response.

White House staff have promised to post any We the People petition that receives more than 150 signatures through social media sites and to respond to petitions that receive more than 25,000 signatures in a month. More than 150 petitions have been posted to the site since its September launch.

The White House was criticized for early We the People response that looked like pro forma administration statements about marijuana legalization and the removal of religious phrases from U.S. currency and the pledge of allegiance. Experts have said it makes more sense to judge the administration's responses to petitions that seek less fundamental policy shifts rather than petitions on big ticket or partisan issues on which the president has already staked out a clear position.