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How Regulatory Comments Have Changed from Obama to Trump

by Ann Dermody, FiscalNote

FiscalNote's data research team investigated the difference in regulatory comments over six years and an administration change.

While Congress gets all the attention for introducing and passing laws, the federal agencies that interpret and enforce the rules and regulations passed down are arguably where the really important and ultimately impactful work happens. Getting those rules in place can be a long and arduous journey to final publication in the Federal Register. 

One very important step in that process is the obligatory comment period before a rule can become final. That's the place where industry, grassroots, and the public get to weigh in directly with remarks on any proposed regulation (also known as a “docket”). Commenting is a tool essential to many organizations and sectors that will be impacted by the ultimate interpretations. 

Since the comment period is leveraged by many of our clients and partners, we wanted to examine the comments and the agencies that receive them in more detail. Among many questions, our data science team here at FiscalNote wanted to understand how the commenting pattern had changed from the Obama to Trump administrations, given that both have had significantly different philosophies when it comes to the regulatory environment. 

We looked at multiple queries across dockets, such as the total number of comments from organizations in each industry; how that number has changed over the years; the total number of comments from the public vs organizations, per agency, and much more. Those findings and the ones below are a part of our FiscalNote 2020 Regulations Report, now available for download.

For this article, we’ll focus on our research concerning the five questions below, from the last three years of the Obama administration (2014-2016) to the first three years of the Trump administration (2017-2019).  

We answer the following questions about comments on regulations in that timeframe:

  1. The difference in the number of comments for each administration.
  2. The changes in the number of comments by organizations or the public. 
  3. The general sentiment (negative versus positive) of those comments. 
  4. The differences in the number of comments (per administration) concerning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  5. Sentiments (negative and positive) of comments for EPA dockets only.

1. What was the difference in the volume of comments, from the last three years of the Obama administration through the beginning of the Trump administration? 

When our team looked at all the comments from all dockets during the last six years, they found that the average number of comments per docket is about 10 times higher in the Trump administration, but the median is the same in both administrations. 

  • Mean: Obama - 253; Trump - 2605
  • Median:  Obama - 3; Trump - 3

What the median tells us is that for both administrations, half of the dockets had three or fewer comments. The average is a lot higher because several rulemakings, namely the FCC net neutrality rule in 2017 during the Trump administration, have significantly more comments than the rest of the rulemakings.

Commenting activity seen during Trump administration

The dot plot above shows the min, median, 75th percentile, 90th percentile, 95th percentile, mean, and max number of comments per docket for Obama and Trump administrations. 

The number of comments per docket during the last three years of the Obama administration is as follows:

  • min = 1 comment per docket, 
  • median = 3, 
  • 75th percentile = 13, 
  • 90th percentile = 65, 
  • 95th percentile = 190, 
  • mean = 253, and 
  • max = 2.1 million. 

The number of comments per docket during the first three years of the Trump administration is as follows:

  • min = 1 comment per docket, 
  • median = 3, 
  • 75th percentile = 12, 
  • 90th percentile = 60, 
  • 95th percentile = 232, 
  • mean = 2605, and 
  • max = 22.1 million.

2. Was there a change in the number of comments by organizations versus the public over the same period from one administration to the next?

The answer here was a similar story. The average number of comments per docket submitted by organizations is a lot higher in the Trump administration at 221 comments compared to 41 comments during the Obama administration. But again the median number of comments per docket remains the same.

  • Mean: Obama - 41; Trump - 221
  • Median: Obama - 3; Trump - 3

3. What was the general sentiment (negative versus positive) of comments for the same period from both administrations?

This is where things got particularly divided. To answer this question, we eliminated any docket that had fewer than 50 comments. 

We found that the sentiment of the comments in the Trump administration was more polarized than during the Obama administration, meaning that the negative comments are more negative, and the positive comments are more positive. As a result, the mean sentiment is not very different.

4.  What was the difference in the number of comments to EPA, from the Obama administration to Trump administration? 

Overall, very few dockets in either administration received any comments, as can be seen by the very low medians. Namely, at least half the dockets under Obama had 0 comments and only 1 comment under Trump.

Due to the particular focus on deregulations at the Environmental Protection Agency, we decided to look at comments on EPA regulations from one administration to the next to see if that inspired more commentary. On average the number of comments on EPA dockets is higher in the Trump administration, but again that was driven by some dockets getting a very high number of comments. 

  • Mean: Obama: 100 Trump: 124
  • Median: Obama: 3 Trump: 3

5. What were the sentiments (negative and positive) to dockets related to the EPA only?

Again, the team focused on dockets with at least 50 comments. We found that the sentiment of those comments was more negative in the Trump administration.

Want to see more?

Download our 2020 Regulatory Report for more on individual and organizational commenting patterns from the past decade.