BY KATHY KEMPER, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – Posted The Hill | 01/23/17 @07:20 PM EST
With not even an hour of his presidency to spare, then-President Obama huddled in the holding room in the Capitol, just off the balcony, steps from where then-President-elect Trump would take the oath of office.
In this unusual setting, the outgoing president signed H.R. 39, the Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional Talent (Talent) Act, to codify the Presidential Innovation Fellows program as a centerpiece of his legacy.
The program, created by the Obama administration in 2012 to build a more efficient, effective, and people-centered government, has received accolades across the political spectrum and private sector.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that I run, the Institute for Education, has been an informal supporter of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program since its early days.
I’ve said for years the tech and innovation work done by the Obama team was the most important work that nobody spoke about.
Recently, the program gained significant bipartisan support and even passed both the House of Representatives and Senate with nearly unanimous majorities.
“As a former telecommunications executive, I know how difficult and bureaucratic it can be for government to adapt to new changes in technology, productivity, and data management,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) stated. “This program provides an opportunity for this country’s top talent to bring their diverse and innovative experience to the federal workforce, without displacing change-makers within government.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) embraced a similar outlook.
“This law will play a part in helping improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our federal workforce,” Lankford stated. “It was a pleasure to work with Senator Warner and Senator Booker on this, and I appreciate the efforts of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who authored the companion bill in the House.”
With the clock ticking out on Obama’s presidency and Washington, D.C. consumed with Donald Trump‘s inauguration preparation, the Talent Act nearly failed to get signed.
During the second half of 2016, a few former White House and Capitol staffers ran a quiet lobbying campaign in the Senate on behalf of the Talent Act.
One of its proponents was John Paul Farmer, who, five years earlier, had cofounded the Presidential Innovation Fellows program with former Chief Technology Officer Todd Park.
Farmer, a tech power broker at Microsoft, still had a personal interest in making sure the Presidential Innovation Fellows program stuck around into the new administration, so he devoted his spare time to it.
After dying at the last-minute during the 114th Congress, the Talent Act rose from the ashes at the beginning of the current Congress when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) re-introduced the bill to the House.
Majority Leader McCarthy and his tech guru, Matt Lira, kept a close eye on the bill’s progress until it ultimately passed by an overwhelming majority — 386-17.
On Tuesday evening, the Senate passed an identical companion bill by unanimous consent. All signs pointed to a fairly typical signing process.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was the first to sign, but then, the physical bill got hung up in the House and didn’t arrive in the Senate until mid-afternoon Thursday.
By the time Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) signed the bill and returned it to the House clerk for delivery to the president, it was already early evening on inauguration eve and Ryan’s staff was gone for the day.
White House teams had turned in their badges and White House emails were shut down. Communication was not fluid.
The current administration was handing off to the next administration and the bill sat in the House clerk’s office, having never been sent to the White House.
At a normal time, the White House Office of Legislative Affairs would’ve probably been pressuring the House to deliver the bill that they were expecting.
But with the Trump inauguration the next day, almost all of the staff had already been off-boarded.
With no word from the House, Farmer sprang into action. Despite being repeatedly told it wasn’t going to happen, he refused to take no for an answer.
Starting with the House clerk, Farmer figured out what needed to happen to move the bill. After tracking down contact info for Ryan’s staff in the speaker’s office, he still needed to figure out which West Wing staffers were still on the job.
Farmer brought them all together and hatched a brilliant plan to have President Obama sign the Talent Act into law during the few minutes between entering the Capitol Building and making his public appearance on the balcony outside.
They say not all heroes wear capes. In my mind, the Presidential Innovation Fellows have been proof of that for years, but we should also thank Farmer.
Without his resourceful, heroic efforts, the terrific, bipartisan Talent Act would have been a relic of the Obama presidency and not cemented its lasting legacy.
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Kathy Kemper is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership, civility, and finding common ground. Kemper’s writing is regularly featured in USA Today, Roll Call, The Washington Examiner and Newsday.