Civics Refresher: Regulations and Rules 101

by | Oct 13, 2017 | Actions, Activist Toolkit, News

Photo Credit: Code of Federal Regulations Mid-Manhattan Library by Kaihsu Tai – Own work, Public Domain

Although it’s blatantly obvious when health care for millions is under threat, changes to current regulations – sometimes arcane – can have just as big an impact on our lives as legislation and acts passed by Congress.  The day-to-day operations of the government run on the backs of rules and regulations which determine whether our pajamas are made with inflammable material, or how the USDA and FDA ensure that our food is safely grown or imported.

Perhaps you’ve already been busy communicating with your elected representatives, showing up at town hall meetings and protests, and even phone banking and text banking… but there’s one more, less glamorous way to help save our government as we know it…

You can get online and express your opinion during the “Comment Period.”

Why is this important?

Federal agencies, like the FDA, are given their authority to regulate our lives by the laws passed by the legislature. Once a law is on the books, the agency interprets the law through the rulemaking process. As we’ve seen over the summer – passing new laws can get very politically complicated. To get around this, the agencies can also change the way they interpret current laws to suit a new president’s goals.  However, our government has protected us from the whim of whoever happens to be in power at the time. It has set up a process. in which every citizen has a voice, that must be followed in order to change any existing rule or regulation.

This is nothing like calling your local congressman and leaving a message with his/her aide. The federal laws state that in order to make a change, the rule subject to being changed must be given a “comment period,” usually 30-60 days, but for some major rules 180 days or longer. During the comment period any citizen, organization, or expert can voice an opinion on whether the change is good or bad, and why. Once you submit your comment to the entity making the decision, the comment you left MUST be considered when they make their final decision.

  1. The first step is the decision to change or do away with an existing rule. Once that is done, a draft rule, or draft guidance is released.
  2. Any time during the  “Comment Period,” you can add your opinion to the record.
  3. This step is where your voice is potentially given power.  If the agency or department makes the change despite what the majority of experts, organizations and citizens say during the comment period, then the rule is being changed in an “arbitrary” manner.  THIS MEANS THAT WE CAN TAKE THE GOVERNMENT TO COURT.  A ruling in the people’s favor means that the judicial system can reverse the change by determining it should never have happened.

The problem is there are so many rules and regulations that can be changed. So how do you know what to do? The government has made that a little bit more organized than it used to be. www.regulations.gov is the database of all regulations up for change. Once inside, it lets you look by how soon the comment period is ending, or by area of interest.

When you type in your comment online, there is a button to click to submit your comment and a running tally of the number of comments. Other comments that have already been submitted online or scanned into record by the agency might already be there, so you can see what your fellow Americans have been commenting about the proposed rule change.

Get Involved!

Hundreds of items are submitted to Federal Register on a daily basis. Some of these submissions are just notices to let us know a certain vendor has been approved for FEMA disaster cleanup services, while others are the official notification we receive as citizens that a major change to an important rule is being proposed.

We need your help to monitor potential changes to rules and regulations in the area of your interest.  Please contact rhiannonwoo@twwusa.org if you’d like to learn more or to volunteer!