The latest iteration of USASpending.gov, which combines all the virtues of clunky design with the frustrations of diminished functionality, is a reminder for this writer of the early days of the Sunlight Foundation. George W, Bush was president with majorities in both the House and the Senate, and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton was certain to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Barack Obama was a junior senator from Illinois and among the chamber’s most liberal. He teamed up with the now retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., among the most conservative, to craft a bill called the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which led to the creation of USASpending.gov.
Recently, we used USASpending and other data to show how much the 200 most politically active corporations get out Washington ($4.4 trillion over six years!) in our Fixed Fortunes project. Sunlight has also presented data from the site, along with federal campaign finance and lobbying data we get from the Center for Responsive Politics and state campaign finance data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, on our Influence Explorer site. There, we provide access to data via bulk downloads, APIs, or filtered for a particular organization, politician or other search term, real time access to Federal Election Commission and lobbying registration filings, and a whole lot of other information. I like to think of Sunlight a little bit like an old line from a BASF commercial: “We don’t make the data, we make it better.” And more accessible, easier to understand and easy to work with whether you’re a topflight developer or a curious citizen trying to found out about your government.
And that’s why passage of FFATA, also known as Coburn-Obama, an act “to require full disclosure of all federal funds,” was so important, and worth remembering. At the time, public suspicion of Congress and the executive branch was justifiably high: members had gone to jail, including Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who jotted down on office stationery how much money he required in bribes to secretly award contracts to those who paid them. House Speaker Dennis Hastert had been shown to personally profit—by a few millions—from a $200 million highway earmark he’d slipped into a transportation bill at the last minute. Haughty senators refused to defund wasteful spending like $250 million bridges to nowhere in Alaska in favor of rebuilding bridges brought down by Hurricane Katrina. Washington had rarely seemed so out of touch, unaccountable and out of control.
In August 2006, when violence in Iraq and a war between Israel and Hezbollah dominated the headlines, Coburn-Obama was stalled in Congress because some member of the Senate put a secret hold on the bill. Under Senate rules, a member could freeze a bill at any time for any reason without having his identity revealed to the public. At the time, Sunlight was working with an ad hoc group of bloggers and government watchdogs known as Porkbusters to dig out earmarks from appropriations bills and put them online on a map. Our colleagues came up with an ingenious idea to see if we could get citizens to call their senators and find out who had the secret hold. Rob Neppell, a clever blogger and programmer who went by the name N.Z. Bear, built a page showing all 100 senators; as citizens got their senators to deny having the hold, the number of pictures began to shrink. In the end, when only four were left, and at that point TPMuckraker’s Paul Keil and Cox News Service’s Rebecca Carr sleuthed out the obstructing senator: one of the biggest spenders in Congress, the late Ted Stevens of Alaska.
After another round of shenanigans (not to be outdone by Stevens, the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia applied his own secret hold), the bill finally cleared the Senate, the House and was signed by then-President George W. Bush. The site it created is not perfect (Sunlight is a persistent critic of its shortcomings and a persistent supporter of efforts to improve it), but it was a first step toward a series of changes (disclosure first then an outright ban of earmarks, more frequent lobbying disclosure) that sadly aren’t finished (how about real-time campaign finance disclosure). The creation of USASpending is also a reminder that the politicians are in charge of us only because we let them be, but We the People really are sovereign, and sometimes we can even prove it to Washington.