Something bothers me about the accusation that Barack Obama has no significant legislation in the Senate to his credit. Actually what bothered me in the past is that this point is usually made by an Obama opponent asking, "Can you name one piece of legislation Obama got through the Senate?" And the TV host or pundit being questioned is too poorly informed to have an answer. So the implication is that Obama's done nothing.
This, of course, is not true. And beyond the weak preparation of the TV media, what's bothered me most is that I can name one piece of legislation Obama's had a hand in and, at least on the Internet, it is part of a relatively famous story. What's more, it actually came up last night at the Republican National Convention, apparently completely unnoticed in the glare of Palin's performance: The Coburn-Obama Transparency Bill a.k.a. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006.
Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard chairwoman and vociferous McCain advocate mentioned this in her address to the convention: "In his first year in office, he [McCain] will subject every government agency to a top to bottom review and post the results on the Internet for all Americans to see."
That may be the easiest promise for McCain to keep from his whole campaign because to a large degree, it's already done. In 2006, Barack Obama and Republican Senator Tom Coburn introduced legislation to put the government's business in a free searchable public online database. The idea was that by granting the public access to how federal money is doled out, legislators would be loath to make secret sweetheart deals with lobbyists and local interests.
I'm not enough of a historian to know how connected associated events were at the time, but the again-famous "Bridge to Nowhere" story was still fresh in the headlines, Lawrence Lessig was drawing a lot of attention to the idea of "open government," and bloggers were making history with the collective research and activism for which they're now so famous.
From my perspective as a Web observer, the way the story played out was that this bipartisan Coburn-Obama legislation, heralded by political bloggers as part of a public access revolution, was being blocked by one or more anonymous senators through a tactic called a "secret hold." (Apparently in the Senate it's possible to block legislation without having to reveal yourself as doing so.)
Bloggers wouldn't stand for that however, and launched a campaign to flush out the mystery bill blockers by calling their senators individually and getting them to declare publicly their position on the bill and whether they were responsible for the hold. As the process eliminated suspects it was eventually revealed that Democratic Senator Robert Byrd and Republican Senator Ted Stevens (the man behind the Bridge to Nowhere) were responsible for the hold. Upon being exposed, the holds were lifted and President Bush signed the bill into law. The result was USASepnding.gov, "Where Americans can see where their money goes."
Senators Obama and Coburn have continued to work on the project, introducing the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008 (S. 3077). It isn't very pretty to read but looks to be mostly about improving the site's features and function. In my amateur reading it appears to set deadlines for compliance throughout 2009 or, as Ms. Fiorina puts it, the new president's first year in office.
I should point out that Fiorina is not wrong for describing the bill as a promise from John McCain. Not only is this a bipartisan project, but McCain's name is mentioned prominently in the paperwork:
By Mr. COBURN (for himself, Mr. OBAMA, Mr. CARPER, and Mr. MCCAIN): S. 2590. A bill to require full disclosure of all entities and organizations receiving Federal funds; to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Obama may have greater ownership of the bill (lengthy audio here, brief CNN interview here), but given McCain's history on Web issues, his involvement in something that casts the Web as a public utility is remarkable enough.
I don't know very much about Obama's activities in government. I only know this one small thing because it was part of a larger online drama, but that's all I need to know to suffer significant cognitive dissonance from the emphasis at the RNC that Obama has done nothing, has not reached across party lines and has no record as a reformer. In this one act he's done all three and with the cooperation of the Republican candidate to boot.