Following Request from Portman & Carper, Independent Watchdog Highlights Lack of Transparency in Public Comment Process, Recommendations to Improve Public Engagement

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Will Hold a Hearing on GAO Report in September

July 26, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, today released the findings of a new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that reviewed online regulatory commenting systems, including, the Federal Communications Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System, and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s online comment site.  Portman and Carper requested GAO to study the issue in January 2018.  The request was prompted by evidence that these online comment systems are subject to misuse and abuse.  For example, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission received nearly 24 million comments on one rulemaking, many of which were duplicative or appeared to be intended to overload the system.  In addition, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that thousands of posts on these online dockets are submitted under fraudulent identities, some of which appear to be stolen identities.   

GAO’s report is the first to examine issues relating to commenter identity verification.  GAO reviewed the 10 federal agencies that receive the highest volume of contents.  The review demonstrates inconsistencies between agencies’ policies and the difficulty of using data associated with comments.  Further, GAO found that agencies do not effectively communicate to commenters how their identity information will be used or posted on the agency comment platforms, which can discourage effective public participation in rulemaking.  In the report, GAO makes eight recommendations to various agencies to create new policies and procedures regarding commenters’ identities and the posting of comments. 

The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will hold a hearing on this report and other issues associated with agency comment systems in September. 

“I am grateful to GAO for its diligent work over the last year-and-a-half to review federal agency online commenting systems,” said Senator Portman.  “With the regulatory comment process increasingly moving online, we are finding that policies developed decades ago are not always suited to today’s environment.  The American people must be able to participate in an open and meaningful public comment process to help federal agencies devise smarter and better-informed regulations.  In order for the process to be effective, however, we must have sound policies in place to prevent online abuse and make sure that Americans’ participation is meaningful and useful to federal agencies.  I would encourage these federal agencies to implement the recommendations outlined in the report.”

“One of my guiding principles is that everything I do I know I can do better. When things aren’t perfect, we have an obligation to improve them, and there are few more worthy causes than ensuring that the American people can more effectively make their voices heard,” said Senator Carper. “Public comment periods are crucial to making sure that our constituents – those affected by the rules and regulations put in place by federal agencies – are able to give their input and help the federal government craft more effective, thoughtful policies. But in order to ensure that Americans can do so in a meaningful way, we must do what we can to protect the integrity of the comment process, including preventing some bad actors from potentially gaming the system online. I want to thank GAO for looking into this request and putting forth constructive recommendations that could be helpful moving forward.”