The first amendment to our Constitution declares that Congress cannot abridge the right of the people “. . . to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Unfortunately, this vital tool of our democracy is easily circumvented by members of Congress and executive agencies by simply not responding whatsoever to “petitions” by the citizenry. This governmental undermining of our constitutional right is producing invincibly incommunicado government officials.
Countless times over the years, I have asked civic group leaders about the outcome of their “petition,” their deliberative letters, their serious requests regarding desired policy changes, public hearings, new initiatives, reversal of courses of actions, or just questions seeking investigation and information. Their replies mostly have been no answer, no response from the congressional offices, not even an acknowledgment of receipt. This pattern has also been routinely entrenched in the culture of executive branch agencies and departments.
This government of the incommunicado, by the incommunicado, and for the incommunicado infects both Congress and executive branch agencies.
I am not referring to congressional “casework” matters or letters and calls from campaign donors, social buddies, nor the easy letters by politicians on the occasion of birthdays and graduations.
I am referring to letters about serious matters of government raised by the citizenry. President George W. Bush, during the weeks leading up to his criminal, bloody invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, received over twelve urgent, organized requests to meet from significant American organizations. The requests turned out to be prophetic in their warnings about the deadly consequences of this unconstitutional, illegal war. These informed entreaties came from large religious organizations, business, labor, peace, student, veterans, lawyers, and women’s groups, as well as former intelligence officials, some of whom had recently returned from Iraq or had direct experience with the region.
They wrote, telephoned, and emailed the White House. There was not so much as an acknowledgment. It was as if these citizen petitions to their government did not exist. (See: https://nader.org/category/letters-to-president-george-w-bush-regarding-iraq-war/).
Later in 2005-2006, the American Bar Association (ABA) – the largest membership organization of lawyers in the country – sent Bush and Cheney three “white papers” written by ABA task forces of lawyers who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. These task forces charged the White House with three significant violations of the Constitution (See: https://nader.org/2013/04/19/aba-white-papers/). The ABA did not receive any acknowledgment, never mind a response. There wasn’t even a White House referral for review by the Justice Department for a response.
Our experience in recent years has confirmed that being an arrogant, incommunicado government official is now normal dictatorial government practice, if not policy. Yet, such closed-door inaction is not considered “news” by the media, including the self-described independent media.
Together with two leading constitutional law specialists, Bruce Fein and Louis Fisher, we have sent scores of requests for verification or action regarding an array of criminal and civil violations – many of them impeachable offenses – by Trump. Other letters were dispatched to executive branch agencies and departments as well as Democratic leaders in Congress. The only response was from Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) because the letter was related to his prior support for invoking the 25th amendment against Trump.
Our letters went way beyond Trump. Letters of import were sent, backed by phone calls and emails to commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission (F TC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Department of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, chairs of congressional committees and subcommittees, and many others. We received no response, nor any acknowledgment. Into a depthless void they were sent, by people whose jobs, salaries, and power come from the sovereignty and tax dollars of the people.
Some of these politicians might be considered political allies.Try getting Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to return a call, arrange a promised Zoom conference (by Senator Sanders), or respond to an invitation, at their convenience, to be on our weekly radio show and podcast to discuss serious matters. Progressive chairs of the Senate and the House Committees on Financial Services became incommunicado after receiving two of our requests to hold long-overdue hearings on public banking and reinstating the postal savings bank. Both Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D- CA) chose to be incommunicado, though Representative Waters did later allow a short hearing on public banking while Senator Brown sent a form letter on his positions generally that was not responsive to specific petitions on public banking.
Among the worst is crypto-Republican, the nominally Democratic former Chair of the tax-writing U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, Richard Neal (D-MA), who stiffed his “petitioning constituents” in western Massachusetts (https://neal.house.gov/). He has redefined unresponsive arrogance, except toward his corporate paymasters, by a legislator and effectively blocked addressing Trump’s massive plutocratic tax cuts of 2017 since he became chair of the committee in 2019.
After one hundred or more of my serious letters to George W. Bush and Barack Obama went unanswered. I compiled them into a book titled, Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015, Seven Stories Press 2015 (See: https://nader.org/books/return-to- sender/).
We don’t take personally our government officials being incommunicado. We take it civically, as practitioners in seriously advancing justice. Even members of Congress routinely do not get replies to their letters directed to executive branch departments. Congressional committee subpoenas are ignored – subpoenas! – by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Trump got away with the all-time record – defying over one hundred and twenty subpoenas without so much as an acknowledgment. Why, members of Congress have told us that their own letters to other members of Congress go unanswered! The breakdown in communications keeps worsening in the highly touted “Information Age.”
In 2021, former Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) communicated to his good friends in the House, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), regarding our drafted proposal to shield government Covid-19 scientists from White House madness. He got no response at all.
The straight-arm culture is omnipresent because there is no penalty, no accountability, no legal action possible for inaction, and, most importantly, there is no media exposure. Journalists could care less, because they are more likely to get some response to their inquiries and, if not, they simply report the lack of a reply or comment in their stories. Civic groups do not want to publicly complain, because they would appear powerless and weak. Many simply stop communicating their new horizons and urgencies.
In the nineteen sixties and seventies – until the dark Reagan years – citizen group letters demanding hearings, or providing focused advice to government officials were often reported by the press. Politicians felt some heat to hold hearings, demand executive branch action, or introduce legislation. Today the absence of media coverage gives our incommunicado government officials little incentive to address civic calls and initiatives regarding long-overdue action.
Today the silence is deafening. Just try calling your members of Congress, not as one of their donors or golf companions, but as a serious informed citizen practicing Civics 101. Note the automated runaround, where you end up not connecting with any real person and leaving a message on voicemail that goes unanswered. Including, we might add, calling their local congressional offices back home. If they need more staff to respond to their constituents, they can increase their office budgets, for Congress is the appropriator.
This shutout got worse under Covid-19, but long preceded that convenient explanation for not having real human beings answer telephone calls to congressional offices. The switchboard number for Congress is 202-224-3121. Ask for your incommunicado lawmaker or their chief of staff by name. Be patient, the Congress takes off much of the summer until after Labor Day, plus other recesses while still collecting their pay and perks. All the backlogged undone work on Capitol Hill, including timely passage of annual budgets, can be again and again deferred and avoided to the detriment of “the People.”
Whatever happened to “We the People,” people? Among other nullifications of your Constitution by Congress is that aforementioned part of the first amendment. If members of Congress aren’t listening or responding except to commercial lobbyists and some causes that happen by gut-wrenching tragedy to be in the news, Congress just becomes a stonewalling cover for dictatorial lawlessness, servicing the always welcomed lawless, self-enriching plutocracy. Nonprofit citizen groups, striving to receive some media attention, find themselves unable to assure reporters of any attention on Capitol Hill, thereby assuring no coverage. Reporters want evidence of a congressional connection beyond occasional form letters by legislators. Without any, this broken cycle atrophies civic communities. The same situation applies to unresponsive executive branch agencies.
The following letters to the incommunicados are just a sample to illustrate how our first amendment right to petition our government can be rendered meaningless. There are some additional letters to nongovernmental addressees with similar non-responses or even acknowledgments.
With the emergence of the internet, this has become the norm in the corporate sector. Everyone has had the frustrating experience of trying to get through to a human being at their bank, insurance, and utility companies. Over time, we have received complaints about unanswered letters from the citizens across the country. We include, as a sample, one by author and executive compensation expert Steven Clifford to his Representative Pramila Jayapal (D- WA), chair of the Progressive Caucus, which went unanswered for many months before a friend intervened to ask a staffer speak to him.
Understanding all this and finding ways out of this void is the invitational purpose of this collection. We welcome your correspondence, suggestions, and assistance.