How the DATA Act passed—and why you should care

BY SEAN VITKA

Congress is beginning to learn the hard way that it must listen to the online community on matters of Internet freedom. When it doesn’t, we can deliver one hell of a black eye.

The most iconic bruise so far, of course, was the successful prevention of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act (SOPA/PIPA). But today we can celebrate a less heralded type of victory—the kind that comes from successful collaboration of people, parties, and sectors: the signing of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, into law. 

Interestingly, the signing came with little fanfare, announced with just a short press release late Friday afternoon. This, despite President Obama‘s claim to be the most transparent in history. 

The story of the DATA Act began like any good story (and many bills introduced in Congress these days) with the threat of defeat. By the time any bill makes it through its congressional narrative, the chances are high that it will have been corrupted, gutted or simply DOA. The DATA Act survived this process for three years because of consistent public pressure for better transparency about how the government spends our money.

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the influential House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, first introduced the bill in 2011, after the Sunlight Foundation released its “Clearspending” analysis of USASpending.gov. The analysis revealed errors in $1.3 trillion of federal spending—and that was just accounting for grants and direct assistance. The DATA Act’s mission was to fix the data quality and consistency while vastly expanding and improving the federal spending data to which the public has access. Did it pass the House? Unanimously! But the president didn’t bother endorsing it, and the Senate never even voted on its version, which was introduced by Sen. Mark Warner.

This is the kind of political inaction that angers outside groups. And it’s surprising, considering the self-proclamation that this is the most transparent administration in history and the platitudes from many senators about openness and transparency.

Perhaps we should have read the tea leaves better: The predecessor to the DATA Act, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA), which mandated the creation of USASpending.gov, was tied up for weeks by two secret holds in the Senate. It wasn’t until the Internet community organized an online campaign to out the politicians strangling FFATA that the blockade was lifted.

To expose the “secret senator,” bloggers from the left and right called on their readers to get confirmations from senators that they were not blocking the bill and to report back. One Redstate poster described the process: “Last week, I called every senator’s office, except five — those five are co-sponsors of the legislation. I’ve been told that the hold was placed by a Republican. Of all the senators I called, only one would not give me a definitive ‘no.’”

That senator, who later confirmed his role, was Ted Stevens. The one with the bridge. To nowhere.  

Sadly, the fact that Sen. Tom Coburn, who introduced FFATA, tried to kill funding for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere,” and thus triggered a tirade from Sen. Stevens, is probably not irrelevant. Ditto that FFATA was designed specifically to help the public identify the kind of pork spending that Stevens was an expert at securing. Sen. Robert Byrd, another “King of Pork,” placed the other secret hold, which was also lifted after his role was revealed.

Crowdsourcing the search for the secret senator and zeroing in on backdoor politicking were successes for both public engagement and citizen journalism. So it’s only fitting that opaque dealings and public persistence would also determine the DATA Act’s fate.

Once Rep. Issa and Sen. Warner introduced the House and Senate bills again in 2013, the DATA Act seemed to have gotten its legs back. Nonprofitsfor-profits, and politicians (again) began to rally around it. Everything was coming up DATA Act.

Then someone leaked a secret, new version of the bill to Federal News Radio, drafted at the last second by the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget. It aimed to replace the Senate version, and the specific modifications would have been so severe that advocates questioned whether to endorse the brutalized bill.

Our protagonist was wounded in the third act. 

The OMB version would have crippled data standardization, undone requirements for data consolidation, reduced the amount of data to be published, and given OMB too much responsibility in implementing the Act. Why would the latter be a problem? The fact that OMB authored the gutted, leaked version aside, its relationship with open data and this bill in particular has been sordid at best.

It’s not that the DATA Act had to be perfect. Heroes and heroines have scars. But after three years of work, it had to be better than this.

In the words of an emailed statement to FedScoop from Sen. Warner, “The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency, but these comments reflect a clear attempt to gut the DATA Act.” Journalists were critical and skeptical, and the public took to social media to decry the administration’s stealth move.

The effort was worth it. After the fight, the Senate rejected almost all of the administration’s changes, leading to a final compromise with the even stronger House version. By all accounts, this was a rare showing of bipartisan cooperation that sent an even rarer bill to the president’s desk.

There’s always the chance that our protagonist will die in the epilogue, suffering from poor implementation or some new, bad law. This work is never really finished. It’s up to all of us to push—constantly—for both good implementation of the DATA Act and better policy.  

But it’s also important to recognize where our common efforts as a community are succeeding, and where they’re failing. To recognize what our punches have accomplished, and what they haven’t. To identify where the next bruises should be. And, sometimes, to celebrate a knockout.

Sean Vitka is the federal policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government globally and uses technology to make government more accountable to all.

Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

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