Portman, Carper Applaud Release of GAO Report on Online Federal Government Commenting Systems

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Tom Carper (D-DE) applauded the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for the release of its review of online government commenting systems. Portman and Carper requested the report from GAO in 2018. The GAO report adds to the growing body of work, including the bipartisan report Senators Portman and Carper released in 2019, as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), identifying deficiencies in online government commenting systems. The PSI report revealed rampant use of stolen identities to post comments on proposed regulations with no recourse for identity theft victims, more than 100,000 comments containing profanity and threats of violence, and comments designed to flood the systems, such as comments containing entire movie scripts and the text of War and Peace.  

Federal agencies generally are required to seek input from the public and incorporate feedback before issuing final regulations that have the force of law. The main way people submit comments is through online commenting systems—either Regulations.gov or websites hosted by specific agencies, like the Federal Communications Commission’s Electronic Comment Filing System. Through a substantial survey of ten agencies, the GAO found that, depending on the agency, up to 30 percent of commenters who provided email addresses said they did not submit the comment associated with their identities. These data illustrate the need for ongoing efforts to ensure the validity of comments and commenter identities. The report also builds on the 2019 PSI report by making recommendations to improve online commenting to ensure the comments can be used effectively by federal agencies and improve accessibility for the American public.  

I am grateful to the Government Accountability Office for releasing the report we requested and their continued efforts to ensure that the government works effectively for the American people,” said Senator Portman. “The notice-and-comment rulemaking process is a critical way American citizens and organizations can help the government understand how the regulations the government proposes will affect them. Regulations.gov and other federal agency websites used to collect comments should be secure and easy to navigate, and they should clearly inform commenters how they will use their data.  At the same time, people who abuse the comment process by trying to overwhelm the systems or filing comments using stolen identities should be held accountable. I hope federal agencies will adopt the GAO’s recommendations and work to improve the online commenting experience.” 

“Public comment periods are a critical way that the American people can voice their opinions to the federal government about the policies and regulations that will impact them and their families. This type of citizen engagement is an expression of our nation’s founding principle of democratic participation and a key tool to help our government craft more effective, thoughtful policies,” Senator Carper said. “So, it’s deeply troubling that GAO’s report confirms our earlier findings that federal agencies’ websites that collect public comments about proposed regulations are susceptible to abuse by bad actors. We live in a time where disinformation spreads rapidly online and, as elected officials, we have a critical responsibility to ensure transparency and integrity at every point. I urge federal agencies to work quickly to take the steps recommended by the GAO and continue their work to address this issue.”