WASHINGTON – No, the U.S. will not be building a Death Star. And no, President Barack Obama will not deport CNN’s Piers Morgan or let Texas secede.
These are just a few of the wacky notions the White House has been compelled to formally address in recent weeks, part of an effort to put open government into action: the First Amendment right to petition your government, supercharged for the Internet age.
Now, as the Obama administration kicks off its second term, it’s upping the threshold for responding to Americans’ petitions from 25,000 signatures to 100,000, a reminder that government by the people can sometimes have unintended consequences. In this case, a wildly popular transparency initiative has spawned a headache of the administration’s own making.
The idea, announced in 2011, was simple: Engage the public on a range of issues by creating an online platform to petition the White House. Any petition garnering 5,000 signatures within 30 days would get an official review and response, the White House said.
Dubbed “We the People,” the program was touted as an outgrowth of the “unprecedented level of openness in government” Obama vowed to create in a presidential memorandum issued on his first full day in office in 2009.
The response was overwhelming, and a month later, the Obama administration increased the threshold to 25,000 signatures, calling it “a good problem to have.” The White House cautioned at the time that it might not be the last time the rules of the program would be changed.
The petitions continued to flood in, ranging from serious pleas for judicial reform and gay rights to sillier appeals to ban baseball bats and give Vice President Joe Biden his own reality TV show.
Many of them, as Internet phenomena are wont to do, went viral.
“The administration does not support blowing up planets,” Paul Shawcross, the science and space chief for Obama’s budget office, wrote in response to a petition suggesting that construction of a Star Wars-style Death Star start by 2016.
More than 34,000 people appended their name to that petition.