‘We the People’ petition site the newest tool in K Street lobbying repertoire

A White House petition site designed for the public has become a handy lobbying tool for interest groups in Washington.

The “We the People” site was set up by the Obama administration more than six months ago to take petitions calling for changes in federal policy. The White House responds to any petition that receives more than 25,000 signatures within 30 days.

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Seeking to capitalize on grassroots energy, trade groups and watchdog organizations are using the site to try and force President Obama to take a position on their key issues.

Some of those campaigns have generated widespread public support, while others have come and gone without much notice. Groups said the site has 

become part of their lobbying repertoire, though some believe it’s more for show.

“We wanted to have a channel to bring credibility to our issue in a very public forum,” said Scott Elmore, communications director for the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA). “It was just one more tool in our robust lobbying strategy calling for reform.”

The trade group is concerned about preferences that are given to federal inmates making military uniforms and combat footwear. The Defense Department spends about $2 billion per year on uniforms, and U.S. clothiers are losing market share to prisoners each year.

A petition from AAFA calling for limits on the inmate preferences made it onto the White House site. 

Elmore said the group discovered it takes 150 signatures within 30 days for a petition to be searchable on WhiteHouse.gov. AAFA created its own website, wewearreform.org, to drive visitors to the petition.

The petition, however, fell short of the threshold for a response, receiving only about 500 signatures. 

But that hasn’t discouraged the trade group, which is considering a new petition to call for White House support for legislation that would reform the preference system.

Others are more skeptical that the petitions are useful.

“Don’t do it with the false expectation that the Obama administration is listening, because they’re not,” said Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), calling the website “a gimmick.”

NORML pushed its members to sign a petition to legalize and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. More than 74,000 people signed it, but the White House’s response didn’t answer their question, according to the group.

Despite the disappointment, Stroup said NORML might use the website again to remind the White House that many Americans support changing federal marijuana policies.

“We don’t have the luxury of sitting down with the president’s advisers because they’re simply not going to do it, so we have to work half a step away,” Stroup said. “But that’s OK. Democracy in action.”

The We the People site does have the potential to shift the dynamics in Washington, as shown by the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The White House responded to a petition on SOPA that was interpreted as being critical of the bill, and the anti-piracy legislation went down in flames just days later.

“The folks in the content community were declaring defeat, that it was an unhelpful statement, and I was like, ‘Fine, works for me,’ ” said a tech lobbyist involved in the SOPA battle. “It was giving fuel to the momentum against the bill.”

White House aides have said that they take the petition site seriously.

“There are issues that are on live petitions right now on We the People that senior members of the White House are having meetings about because the issue came to us through We the People,” Jon Carson, director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, said in a video posted online last month.

When We the People launched in September, a petition took only 5,000 signatures to prompt a White House reply. In October, that was upped to 25,000 after the initial response overwhelmed staff.

Some argue the White House has stalled on responding to certain petitions.

In a letter last week, watchdogs such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21 pressed Obama to respond to their petition to nominate new Federal Election Commission members.

Others said the petitions are problematic because people are loath to share their information with the White House.

“We found out that people who disagree with the administration aren’t prone to give their email addresses to the White House,” said Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute. The business group’s petition calling on the president to rescind his National Labor Relations Board recess appointments failed to reach the signature threshold.

Some have appreciated the chance to get the administration on the record on their issues.

Melanie Kahn, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ puppy-mills campaign, said the group was pleased with the administration’s promise to publish a rule in 2012 that would have large commercial breeders who sell dogs online covered under Animal Welfare Act regulations. That pledge came in response to a petition by the group.  

“It’s certainly something we will consider again in the future, because we did get a response, and we were happy with that response,” Kahn said.

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