The process of making comments on proposed federal rule or regulation changes has been an important but underutilized tool for a long time. In recent months, however, organizations like Empower Missouri have started to urge the advocates we work with to submit these comments on various proposed changes that impact the safety net. Empower Missouri aims to be your one-stop-shop for all things advocacy, so we wanted to put together some information about how and why to submit a public comment.

Federal agencies are required to seek input from the public before significantly changing how an agency or program functions. While the comment period may vary in length, typically the public has about 30 days to weigh in on the most significant changes. Rule changes are often a response to a change requested by Congress or the Executive branch. 

By the time the rule is open to public comment, it has typically been through several stages.

The ‘pre-rule’ stage is usually the first time a rule will appear publicly. This stage is important for the advocacy field because it allows us to begin to understand the scope of the change and plan a strategy to most effectively use our power. Near the end of the pre-rule stage, a ‘Notice of Proposed Rulemaking’ is published on the Federal Register. This also means the change is given a Regulation Identifier Number (RIN).

Then, we move to the ‘proposed rule change’ stage, which is the part of the process where the President reads and reports on the change. Often this version of the rule is also posted publicly, so advocates have the opportunity to observe the changes that may have happened so far.

Next, the proposed change will be published at regulations.gov. This signals the beginning of the comment period and will include information on when final comments are due. By this stage, nonprofit partners will begin a public comment campaign, where they will ask members of the public to submit comments to the agency overseeing the rule change. These can either be in the form of deep, well-researched comments, typically submitted by a non-profit agency, or of individual comments, normally starting with a form letter developed by a non-profit agency.

Empower Missouri often submits our own deep, well researched comments on top of asking our supporters to utilize our form letters. We then share these comments on our website and social media pages, so followers can follow our organizational thinking. Social justice advocates may be able to lay a foundation for future litigation to block a harmful policy through reality-based, well-documented comments as well. If the agency ignores a particular public comment, it can make the final rule vulnerable to judicial challenge.

We also utilize form letters to give constituents a good baseline of talking points for submitting their comments. It is generally best, though, to alter and add information when you can, and our form letters give you the option to do so. 200 copies of the same letter will only be read once. However, if each letter is at least 50% textually original, then they will be read individually. Consider from your perspective why you oppose (or support) a suggested rule change, Include citations in footnotes as often as possible, and urge your network to submit their own comments before the comment period ends. 

This tool is likely to be even more commonplace over the coming months; we know of several campaigns that are likely to begin in the next few weeks. Normally, we will send out information about the rule change and a form letter for you to use to help us submit comments.

If you aren’t using our form letter, or one isn’t available, feel free to reach out to Empower Missouri if you need assistance with submitting your comment to regulations.gov. Government should work for the people, especially for those who are most vulnerable and have the hardest time meeting their basic needs. Engaging in federal policy advocacy through the process of submitting public comments is one way to engage in this important work. 

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