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White House issues first online petition response

The White House responded Wednesday to its first We the People online petition -- a request to forgive all student loan debt to stimulate the economy -- with changes to the government's income-based repayment program that will significantly lower monthly payments for some borrowers.

The plan -- detailed in a letter from Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy Roberto Rodriguez -- was posted on the We the People website and sent by email to the petition's roughly 32,000 signatories, White House New Media Director Macon Phillips said. The White House will be responding to more petitions in coming days, Phillips said.

The student loan petition is one of five We the People petitions that has topped the 25,000 signature threshold to receive an official White House response. Many older petitions also are owed a response, though, under a previous 5,000 signature threshold officials have said they'll honor.

Other petitions that have topped the higher threshold call on the administration to legalize marijuana; abolish the Transportation Security Administration; illegalize the large-scale breeding of puppies; and reopen an investigation of misconduct in the prosecution of Sholom Rubashkin, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish businessman who was convicted of financial fraud in connection with a kosher meatpacking plant he ran in Postville, Iowa.

The White House launched We the People in September as part of a collection of open government initiatives. The site allows users to create petitions, sign existing ones and stump for supporters on social media sites. Petitions on the site have garnered more than a million signatures and a new user is registering on the site roughly once every 15 minutes, Phillips said.

The White House raised the threshold for a petition response to 25,000 signatures early this month, saying it was quickly overwhelmed with more popular petitions than it could adequately respond to.

The George Washington University Political Science Professor Michael Cornfield on Wednesday praised We the People as a way to "narrow cast" the administration's message to a set of constituents who care deeply about a particular issue -- and who may be willing to accept less than a full endorsement of their position if the White House takes the time to explain itself to them in detail, as Rodriguez's letter does.

"I see it as the kind of genuine dialogue you'd have had 100 years ago if you and five of your buddies had gone down to see the ward boss," he said.

Cornfield also called the Obama administration's decision to respond to the student loan petition first a "shrewd" political move because it addresses a major issue pressed by the Occupy Wall Street protesters and other related occupy movements across the country.

"These petition correspondences are teachable moments for the professor in chief," Cornfield said. "Yes, there is only so much the White House can do unilaterally, but when you tell people that in letters such as Rodriguez wrote . . . then you engage citizens and take a small and badly needed step toward replenishing trust in government and politics."

While Wednesday's petition response does not forgive student loan debt, the administration outlined a program to cap income-based repayments on student loans at 10 percent of a person's discretionary income and forgive all remaining debt after 20 years of repayment. The current version of the program caps monthly payments at 15 percent of a worker's income and forgives remaining loans after 25 years.

Congress passed legislation in 2010 that would have made those changes effective in 2014. The president's action will move that start date up to 2012. The initiative was announced separately on the White House blog and in a press briefing Tuesday that cited the issue's evident popularity on We the People.

Some future White House petition responses may be less substantive or important, Cornfield said -- such as an early petition to pass the 5,000 signature-threshold that asked the White House to "formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race." But that doesn't speak poorly of the site itself, he said.

"At a general level, you can't do yourself harm by being transparent. If you tell people we can't do this or that's not realistic. If you tell them that directly after they've written to you, then most people will go away and say 'at least they're listening.' I don't see that as cynical politic or as hopelessly idealistic."

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