Score one for the citizens

Americans should soon be able to search for data about contracts let by the federal government, thanks to new legislation passed after bloggers exposed senators who had “held” the bill in a quiet parliamentary maneuver that might have otherwise killed it. “The unprecedented synergy between online grassroots activists and Senate leadership provides a new model for participatory democracy in action,” said Senator Bill Frist in anouncing passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 ( S2590).

Thanks to Poynter Institute’s Amy Gahran for noting Frist’s remarks and linking to the Center for Citizen Media, which helped find out which senator(s) had secretly objected to the bill’s passage. Under Senate rules a “hold” can only be lifted by the senator who places the hold or by getting 60 senate votes to lift what it in effect a filibuster threat.

A ZDNet article describes how Senators Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd were discovered to have placed holds on the bill. Once this became known, through patient questioning of each senator, the holds were lifted and the bill passed.

I wrote about this bill before it had been held, and so I followed the story of its parliamentary detour and eventual release. A Christian Science Monitor article paints this picture about what the legislation is designed to accomplish:

“The federal government pays out some $500 billion in goods and services each year. It gives another $500 billion to public and private groups and individuals … The … bill puts all this spending into a single database. ‘It would allow any journalist — and small-town journalist — to investigate what their representatives are doing in a lot more detail than now. It would empower the bloggers,’ says (a supporter at the) Cato Institute.”

The Senate bill that just passed must be reconciled with a House version and sent to the President for his signature. So it’s not all over yet.

Let’s hope the act gets implemented soon and works in practice. Meanwhile it’s a small victory for using technology to give individuals the power to learn about federal spending. And it was passed thanks to the sort of citizen input it seeks to amplify. That’s a good omen.