It seems fitting that in an election year, the proposed federal regulation that drew more public comments to the government’s official regulations.gov portal than any other was the Internal Revenue Service’s suggested guidelines for politically active nonprofits.
More than 160,000 people and organizations wrote the IRS about the issue, according to an analysis of the data in Docket Wrench, a tool Sunlight developed to help the public monitor how influence is exercised after laws have been passed through efforts to sway the regulators who implement those laws.
Sunlight’s analysis, which drew on data that Docket Wrench collects from regulations.gov, showed 37 federal regulatory proposals — on subjects ranging from climate change to the protection of animals to immigration — drawing at least 5,000 comments in 2014. The numbers come with some caveats, however: because federal agencies follow different policies about how they post the content of comments on regulations.gov, and other agencies do not participate at all, these comment counts can serve as just a rough estimate.
For example, the Federal Communications Commission does not participate in regulations.gov; its net neutrality proposal has drawn more than a million comments. And while the Environmental Protection Agency does post the content of comments on regulations.gov, it subtracts many that are the results of mass letter-writing campaigns; for example, President Barack Obama’s proposal to combat climate change garnered 1.5 million comments, but the full text of only 24,000 are available at regulations.gov.
Still, this analysis gives a feel for what captures public attention in the geeky area of technical government proposals, typically the province of legal and subject experts. Unsurprisingly, the public gets involved when organizations see an opportunity to rile up their grassroots.
That seemed to be the case for the comments about the IRS proposal to regulate political nonprofits. Most of the comments appeared to be organized by conservative groups opposed to the agency setting standards for what constitutes political activity by nonprofit organizations, our earlier reporting showed. Among comments where we found similarity of language, negative comments outweighed positive ones by a ratio of at least 17:1.
Organizing the letter writing were groups that could be affected by any new IRS regulations of nonprofit politicking. They included FreedomWorks, a tea party group that operates both as a 501(c)4 social welfare group and a super PAC. The super PAC spent $1.7 million on independent expenditures supporting and opposing more than three dozen candidates in this year’s mid-term elections, earning a return on investment of 58 percent. Others leading the anti-regulation campaign: the National Right to Work Committee, the American Family Association, as well as Americans for Prosperity, and the National Pro-Life Alliance. An analysis of a sample of the comments by the Center for Competitive Politics, which has been leading the opposition to the IRS taking action on defining political activity, concluded that most were of the comments were negative.
The biggest effort organizing the public to write the IRS in favor of the proposal–although with suggestions for changes and strengthening language–were campaign finance and transparency organizations, including theSunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and other organizations that endorsed Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project or conducted their own efforts. Public Citizen’s own analysis of the comments on behalf of the Bright Lines Project concluded that 67 percent of the comments coming from organizations–as opposed to individuals–supported the IRS toughening up standards for political activity for social welfare groups.
Other top comment magnets in 2014:
- The proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department posted the text of just 124,000 comments received on the controversial Keystone pipeline; however, an official news release put the number of comments received at 2.5 million. The group Act350, an organization devoted to combating climate change which includes environmental activist Bill McKibben as a founder, claimed that it inspired more than 2 million comments against the pipeline. Sunlight’s analysis via Docket Wrench’s clustering tool of comments posted online by the State Department showed that nearly 100,000 pro-pipeline letters came from a consulting firm connected to Mary Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
- Cheap cigars. Cigar smokers let their feelings be known to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about a proposal to regulate pricey cigars; overall the agency reported collecting more than 80,000 comments. Sunlight found that nearly 30,000 of these came from cigar smokers who wanted the agency to lay off. Two of the most active advocacy groups opposing the proposal are Cigar Rights of America and the trade group International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association. Public health groups also made their voices heard in favor of regulations, including: the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians
- Climate change. President Obama’s proposals to combat climate change drew more than 1.3 million comments, of which just a small portion were published online. Among the most influential commenters was the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a group of utilities and utility trade associations that does not reveal the names of its members.