What is a public comment?
A public comment is a comment to a federal agency providing relevant feedback to a proposed rule or regulation under consideration by the U.S. government. A comment may be made either online or in print. The Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 requires federal agencies keep the public informed. The Act also allows ordinary people to participate in the rule-making process, including submission of relevant information or feedback through public comments.
Public comments are important in democracies
Public comments are an important part of the law-making process. They offer the opportunity for all people, not just lawmakers, to participate in the drafting and refining of laws. Rejecting tyrannical, or closed government decision-making processes, a constitutional democracy allows for participation of the people in the rule-making process that extends beyond voting.
Comments may provide a position that lawmakers didn’t consider while drafting a regulation, or give more insight on the impact of a proposal. Comments can also help regulators improve rules. If a public comment presents compelling information, the federal agency to which it is addressed must take appropriate action. Comments can also have a direct impact by exposing regulations that are arbitrary or capricious — for example, rules or regulations restricting emissions of methane or other gases which can not possibly be attained.
All public comments must be read, and acknowledged; one response may address several comments.
This step-by-step guide takes you through how to submit a public comment, and answers questions about the federal public comment process, including:
- Who Can Make a Public Comment?
- What Documents Are Open for Public Comment?
- How A Public Comment Works
- How to Make A Public Comment
- Tips For Leaving a Comment
- Sample comments
Any person, groups, organizations — including non-profit organizations and lobbying groups — or other federal agency with a legitimate interest can make a public comment. Comments may be submitted anonymously or by a third person, such as a friend or a representative like a lawyer or an advocate, for another person, organization, group, or federal agency.
Preliminary rule-making documents
These include advanced notices of proposed rule-making, petitions for rule-making and notices of inquiry, and comments invited with the intent to add, edit, or alter a proposed or existing rule or regulation.
Note: Any federal agency collecting information is required to publish a notice in the Federal Register and accept public comments in accordance with the 1946 Act.
Federal agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are legally obligated to allow public comments and take into consideration any comments received, as well as reply to all comments when writing the final regulation, or document. All proposed regulations, amendments, and changes are required to be published in the Federal Register as well as the relevant agency’s site.
- There is typically a 60-day period immediately following publication for public commenting. This period closes at 7:00 PM ET for comments submitted in writing, and at 11:59 PM ET for digitally submitted comments on the final day of commenting.
- This is followed by a 30-day reply period, during which the agency is required to respond to comments made during the initial 60-day period. Public comments can be made during this time as well as the original 60-day period, but the agency is not required to respond to comments made during the reply period.
- By law, an agency must respond in the introduction of a final regulation to all public comments. Agencies are also required to explain their responses, for example: whether a comment was outside the scope of, or incorporated into the final regulation. Replies can be bundled by topic, or category, in bulk responses.
The option to submit a digital public comment on a federal agency document can be done in 2 ways: either directly through the agency’s site, or through the Federal Register. Both paths will lead to a document open for comments on regulations.gov, the website for the Federal Register.
The proposed or existing regulation or rule must provide the opportunity to submit a comment digitally. Directions are typically on the right-hand side of the webpage. The document must also provide direct mail and telephone contact information. The personal information collected by agencies may vary.
When commenting through the Federal Register, a comment can have up to 20 files attached, but each file cannot exceed 10MB. Here are valid file types: .bmp, .docx, .gif, .jpeg, .jpg, .pdf, .png, .pptx, .rtf, .sgml, .tif, .tiff, .txt, .wpd, .xlsx, .xml.
You will be able to preview your comment, with the option to edit, before submitting. Once you’ve submitted your comment, a confirmation page will provide a comment tracking number and if you’d like, you can have your comment emailed to you.
- Be very familiar with the rule or regulation you are planning to comment on, and the issue.
- When commenting, use a heading that states the regulation name and docket ID number. In the image below, the docket ID number is FDA-2017-D-6580-4894. The ID number will automatically be associated with your comment when submitted online if you are sending in a written comment. Referencing the name and ID number links your comment with a specific rule or regulation, plus it demonstrates an attention to detail.
- Establish your expertise in the area you are commenting on, and support your comment with research, data, or empirical information. For example, when commenting on an EPA regulation, a weatherman may start with, “My PHD in meteorology and atmospheric sciences…” If the rule or regulation under consideration is about dairy farms, a farmer might start with “Having run a dairy farm for over 20 years…” Not all expertise is academic.
- Be as clear as possible:
- Define your objectives
- Use clear organization and formatting, and precise language
- Present an argument, supported with data if needed, and show how this is related to the document you’re discussing
- Pay special attention to any requests for data or information, or questions, within the document.
- Cite or include sources, if you refer to outside material in your comment.
Note: You can track your comments through the Federal Register. To do so, go to https://www.regulations.gov/help, and follow “find a comment” in the left navigation bar
Sample Templates from the Public Comment Project
ImmigrantSurvivors.org Sample Comment Letter on Proposed Rule-making with Tips
Environmental Law Institute’s Writing Effective Comments, with samples
Sample of an institutional comment: Boundless Comment on the Department of Homeland Security’s Proposed Rule, Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, 83 Fed. Reg. 51,114(Oct. 10, 2018)
The Federal Register’s Tips for Submitting Effective Comments
How to Effectively Comment on Regulations, The Brookings Institute
Department of Health and Human Services: How to Participate in the Rule-making Process
Protecting Immigrant Families: Helpful Ways to Approach Public Commenting
States and local governments may also provide similar provisions for the submission of public comments, but may include different instructions or requirements.