In the United States, at the federal level and in many states, only elected legislators are authorized to originate and enact laws. However, requests for action and policy proposals may originate inside or outside government. This section focuses on external requests, particularly petitions and proposals to government for legislative or administrative action.
Nongovernmental groups, as well as individuals, may request government action or propose public policy. This section shows you how to propose policy on behalf of a group.
One longstanding practice is petitioning. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees citizens’ right to “petition their national legislature for a redress of grievances.” Over time, petitioners have come to include not only individual citizens but also groups, organizations, and corporations of many kinds. Petitioning has extended beyond redressing grievances to requesting varied actions.
To illustrate petitioning: in a case of injury due to air bags deployed in automobile collisions, three different petitions for government action might be made:
a victim might petition his Congressional representatives to amend the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 to authorize training programs for emergency services personnel
a company that has developed a new technology for increasing passenger safety without relying solely on passenger restraints such as air bags or safety belts might petition the National Highway Traffic and Safety Agency to test the new technology.
a professional association of automotive engineers might petition the National Highway Traffic and Safety Agency to amend a vehicle safety design standard to include warning systems in cars to encourage seat belt use.
The other common practice is proposing policy. Proposals usually represent organized, or group, interests in solving a problem.
The role of nongovernmental groups in North American public policy making has deep historical roots. In colonial America, before the United States or its government were established, voluntary associations flourished. Individuals formed associations to provide basic social services, to meet public needs, and to protect community interests. Voluntary fire companies, water companies, library associations, prison associations, school associations, landowner associations, and militias were so common in the America of the early 1800s that a visitor from France, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all disposition constantly form associations. . . Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." (1)
Such group activism provides background for the Fifth Amendment regarding limitations on central government that states “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Nowadays, groups that perform a public good might be granted tax-exempt status as non-profit organizations. Their function might be religious, scientific, literary, educational, promotional, protective, political, charitable, or other, in accordance with Internal Revenue Service standards for twenty categories of tax-exempt activity. (Internal Revenue Service, The Digital Daily, May 2, 2002 [http://www.irs.gov]). In 1998, over a million nonprofit organizations operated in the United States. (2)
Many (possibly most) nonprofit organizations are not concerned with public policy. However, significant numbers of such groups are actively involved in attempting to influence the direction public policy takes. These are known as advocacy groups. Their methods vary according to the limitations of their tax-exempt status. Some limit their activity to education. These educate their members, the larger public, and government regarding issues, but they do not lobby legislators or support candidates for election. Their communications include legislative alerts; editorials and letters; personal visits to lawmakers; witness testimony, and more.
Others, with more restricted tax benefits, might campaign for candidates running for office or lobby for outcomes of a process or provide lawmakers with expert information and political assessments as well as, on occasion, drafts of legislation.
Legislators often appreciate the help of advocacy groups in educating the public about needs for policy. Government staffs appreciate informed, accurate, well-argued lobbying because it helps them to brief legislators on complex or controversial issues.
A positive example of public good resulting from such help might be the continued strengthening of legislation in the United States on smoking as a health problem. Past legislation on smoking has been passed in large part because health care advocacy groups worked with responsive legislators at all levels of government and educated the public to support directed warning labels on cigarettes, non-smoking restaurant sections, and smoke-free public facilities.
A negative example is the influence of lobbying by corporations and advocacy groups to weaken laws on occupational health and safety or on environmental protection.
Why are petitioning and proposing important?
They sustain democracy. They are democratic ways of addressing public problems by institutional means. Whether by direct democracy (as with California’s state referenda) or by representative democracy (as with Washington’s federal legislation), self-governing society relies on procedures for public intervention in the process. Recall that public policy has far-reaching effects in the everyday life of society. Policymakers need and want information that can solve problems and build public support for action. Nongovernmental groups or individuals who are informed about impacts of a problem or a policy are excellent sources of information. So are groups or individuals who recognize a need for policy.
Who can petition and propose?
Individuals can do so, but petitions and proposals by organized groups are likely to have more influence.
Grassroots organizations such as neighborhood or block associations, community clubs, workplace voluntary groups, and student organizations might also use petitioning or proposing to accomplish their advocacy just as nonprofit organizations might.
(2) The New Nonprofit Almanac IN BRIEF: Facts and Figures on the Independent Sector, May 2, 2002. [http://www.independentsector.org]