Federal What? How to Comment on Proposed Federal Rules

Ever encountered a call to action that encourages you to submit a comment to the Federal Register? Did you wonder what exactly the Federal Register is or how to submit an effective comment? This post is for you!

Understanding the Federal Register’s role in how we set policy in the United States will help you advocate more effectively for causes you care about, making sure your voice reaches the right people. Plus, many of the tools you can use to draft effective comments are also useful in other settings, including speaking with lawmakers about issues in your community and writing powerful petitions.

Regulations Versus Laws

There are a lot of different ways to set policy agendas and enact them in the United States on the federal level. But two of the most important are regulations (also called rules) and laws (also called legislation). Similar governmental structures at the state level mean states have their own regulations and laws.

Laws are what many people are most familiar with. They are drafted by lawmakers who debate on, amend and ultimately vote on them. Some popular examples include the Affordable Care Act and the Clean Air Act, setting out broad priorities and intentions.

Regulations are developed by federal agencies, who derive the statutory authority to do so through lawmaking. Thus, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services was tasked with implementing the Affordable Care Act — a job that included developing rules for how the policy in the law would actually function on the ground.

When agencies introduce (they say “promulgate”) a rule, they’re required to obtain public comment and consider it before finalizing the rule. And that’s where the Federal Register comes in.

How the Federal Register Works

Founded in 1935, the Federal Register includes information about rulemaking, presidential proclamations and other key matters. When an agency wants to put forward a rule, it has to publish it in the Federal Register with ample notice — often 60 days — for members of the public to read the rule and submit comments. Any interested party can submit a comment, including civilians and advocacy groups. Their comments become part of the public record.

Comments also have to be taken into account when the agency finalizes the rule. For example, if an economist challenges the math used to arrive at a decision, the agency has to respond to that comment, showing its work and explaining why it thinks it’s correct. If a health care provider challenges a recommended method of implementing electronic medical records — or a privacy activist raises concerns about whether a proposed technology is secure — the agency has to respond.

Agencies count on public comments to make their rules better, while the public counts on this opportunity to advocate about issues of importance. And in an era when an administration is pushing agencies to implement rules that are harmful and potentially illegal or unenforceable, comments can become key groundwork for lawsuits. For instance, an advocacy group can read a final rule and say, “Hey, you didn’t respond to this public comment questioning this component of the rule.”

There’s a clearinghouse at Regulations.gov that makes it a snap to submit comments — unlike the dark ages, when people had to mail in their comments and hope they landed on the right desk.

Writing A Responsive Comment

When agencies propose rules, they’re often extremely complex. For people who aren’t familiar with the process, it may feel tempting to submit a comment that just says you oppose a rule — much as you’d do if you contacted a lawmaker about legislation you oppose. But agencies are only required to deal with responsive comments — in other words, those that engage in some meaningful way with the content of the rule.

That means you need to write a comment that directly addresses one or more components. Copy-paste from another response is not recommended, as many advocates say at least two-thirds of a comment should be original. The team at Regulations.gov actually wrote a brief guide on making good comments, but here are some important tips to keep in mind:

  • Understand what you’re talking about. But don’t feel obliged to respond to every single thing. Most people aren’t lawyers with extensive rulemaking experience. So take advantage of online tool kits, in-depth explainers and other tools to help you understand what’s happening before you pick a specific component to talk about. Many proposed rules also come with questions and prompts that you can use as a jumping-off point.
  • Be specific. Instead of saying, “I think this rule will hurt members of X community,” explain how it will be harmful, drawing upon research to make your point. Cite the sections you’re talking about (“paragraph four, line five”).
  • Provide alternatives. If you oppose a particular section of a rule, suggest an alternative rather than no regulation at all. That might be as simple as “I recommend retaining the original rule as written rather than repealing it as proposed here.” Provide some evidence to make your case.
  • Acknowledge disputes. Feel free to bring up trade-offs or to peremptorily address potential arguments from the other side. And pay especially close attention to economic arguments, as proving a proposed rule would be costly or impractical to implement can be a powerful point.
  • Take your time. The comment period is long for a reason: to give people time to research and draft comments. Stay concise, but make sure you leave room to clearly make your case.
  • Tell them who you are. If you have personal or professional expertise, disclose it. If you have a personal story that connects to the rule in question, tell it. Maybe it’s an attempted repeal of anti-discrimination protections, for example, and you can talk about how discrimination has affected your life.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Federal agencies have to respond to queries from members of the public about proposed rules. If you don’t understand something, think you spot an error or want to know from where the government got its information, reach out to the contact on the proposed rule.

To submit a comment to the Federal Register, you need to do so via the channels discussed in the text of the proposed rule. Signing petitions doesn’t count, though some organizations do comment-gathering drives, soliciting brief comments from members of the public and bundling them for submission. Be aware that agency staff may not engage with these kinds of comments unless they are clearly individual and responsive. But you could borrow some text from their form letter and add your own comments to enrich it.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it can be! But it’s also highly effective. Consider joining forces with friends to read, research and talk through arguments you can use in your comments.

Photo credit: fizkes/Getty Images

41 comments

Alea C
Alea C16 hours ago

I miss my daily causes newsletter. A lot.

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Alea C
Alea C16 hours ago

tyfs

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Alea C
Alea C16 hours ago

I miss my daily causes newsletter. A lot.

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Alea C
Alea C16 hours ago

tyfs

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Alea C
Alea C3 days ago

CARE2: PLEASE FIX YOUR SITE!

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Alea C
Alea C3 days ago

TYFS

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hill6 days ago

thanks

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Sandra Vito
Sandra Vito8 days ago

Thanks.

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Sandra Vito
Sandra Vito8 days ago

Thanks.

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Pam Bruce
Pam Bruce10 days ago

Always speak up for what you believe. Write letters, sign petitions, and speak out at meetings.

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