Federal regulations are generally issued under a notice-and-comment process. A regulating agency releases a draft of a rule, the public provides comments on the draft, the agency reviews the comments, and then issues a final rule which incorporates public feedback.
Outside groups can and do launch campaigns to encourage citizens to weigh in on proposed rules. But now it appears that a federal regulatory agency has been using grass-roots style activism and propaganda to push its own rules. The Environmental Protection Agency launched a lobbying campaign to encourage support for a major new rule on drinking water.
The New York Times reports:
Late last year, the EPA sponsored a drive on Facebook and Twitter to promote its proposed clean water rule in conjunction with the Sierra Club. At the same time, Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group with deep ties to Mr. Obama, was also pushing the rule. They urged the public to flood the agency with positive comments to counter opposition from farming and industry groups.
The piece continued:
The Thunderclap [a social media tool] effort was promoted in advance with the EPA issuing a news release and other promotional material, including a photograph of a young boy drinking a glass of water.
“Clean water is important to me,” the message said. “I want E.P.A. to protect it for my health, my family and my community.”
In the end, the message was sent to an estimated 1.8 million people, Thunderclap said.
The EPA advocacy campaign ginned-up more than one million public comments on the proposed water rule. Then Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s administrator, had the audacity to testify to the Senate that 87 percent of commenters supported the rule—as if that high percentage was actual spontaneous and broad-based support from the public.
The EPA’s campaign may have violated federal law, but even it did not, this is a dangerous path for federal agencies to go down.
From this incident, it appears that the EPA is not serious about taking opposing public comments into account before engaging in regulatory action. The purpose of public comments is to gauge public sentiment before a final rule is issued. The agency should act as an unbiased arbitrator of comments, not as an advocacy organization.