Last month the White House launched "We the People," an official online petitioning feature. Based at WhiteHouse.gov, the tool lets Americans directly petition the government (a right guaranteed in the Constitution) with the promise that, if an idea gains enough support, the Obama administration will issue an official response. As a result of one particularly popular petition on "We the People," which drew more than 30,000 signatures, on Wednesday President Obama announced plans to ease student-loan debt.
"College isn't just one of the best investments you can make in your future. It's one of the best investments America can make in our future," the president said on Wednesday to students at the University of Colorado, after noting that the cost of college has nearly tripled over the past three decades, and student-loan debt now surpasses credit card debt. "We want you in school. But we shouldn't saddle you with debt when you're starting off."
Instead of relying on an act of Congress, the president is bypassing approval from Capitol Hill by using his executive authority. His steps include the following:
* Allowing students to cap their federal student-loan payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income starting in January, two years before the cap was slated to take effect under law.
* Forgiving all remaining debt on federal loans after 20 years instead of the 25-year trigger allowed under the current law.
* Letting borrowers who have more than one federal student loan to consolidate their debt, allowing them to make a single payment to a single lender for multiple loans. In some cases, students would also have their interest rates reduced by up to half a percentage point.
Although the president hailed these steps as a great way to help borrowers manage and repay their student-loan debt, the plan is fairly limited — which tends to be the case with the executive approach — as opposed to a meaningful change in the law. Only current students and recent college graduates can benefit from the new rules, and if you have only one type of federal loan, you're ineligible for the interest-rate reduction. The administration estimates that 6 million students and recent college graduates will be able to consolidate their loans and lower their interest rates, while about 1.6 million will be eligible to cap their loan payments at 10 percent next year.
But small as it may be, it's at least a sensible policy response to the "We the People" tool. Of the 161 wide-ranging petitions listed now (they don't become visible on the site until the creators have first collected 150 signatures on their own), those gaining traction with more than 3,000 signatures include these: "Release all nonviolent drug offenders. Release all inmates who are incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes"; "Preserve our state's rights to decide who can carry hidden, loaded guns" and "Save the dunes sagebrush lizard by protecting it under the Endangered Species Act."
Anyone, however, can start a new petition. What would you request from the White House — and can you draw 150 signatures to get started?
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.